Arts Listings

‘Pirates of Penzance’ Summer’s Last Show At Woodminster

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday September 11, 2008 - 09:55:00 AM

Walking up the path to Woodminster Amphitheatre, after parking on Joaquin Miller Road, a little bit past Woodminster Village in the Oakland hills—past the jets of the fountain and up along the torrential Cascade, spilling down through pools in Writers Grove along the beautiful man-made watercourse—is part of the enjoyment of going to see the summer musicals staged there, though there is a City of Oakland parking lot at the top available for $4. 

Through the oaks and redwoods, the sculptures on the back wall of the Amphitheatre quickly come into view, and the WPA origins of this site, constructed in 1939-40, in Joaquin Miller Park are made plain by the style of ornament. 

Once inside, it’s worth asking for a picnic table, if early; there are also some available for reservation through Oakland Parks & Rec and, within the theater, for a fee, from Producers Associates, the producer of the Summer Musicals. 

The vistas out through the trees, over the flats to—and across—the bay make for a perfect pre-show meal or get-together. (It’s family-friendly, with kids 16 and under free, with paying adult.)  

It’s a big amphitheatre, though the action’s plenty visible from the rim. Musicals are the fare at Woodminster, and, after Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Seussical, The Pirates of Penzance concludes the season, closing this weekend. 

The Pirates of Penzance is, of course, Gilbert & Sullivan and light (or comic) opera. This version of it was adapted by William Elliott to a more Broadway musical style for Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival to commemorate the centennial of Pirates opening in America (staged in New York before London, on New Years Eve, 1879, ironically to head off piracy, considering the lack of American copyright protection). Though controversial with G & S purists, it ran 800 performances for Papp, once moved to Broadway itself, nominated for and winning Tonys, including its leads, Kevin Kline (award) and Linda Ronstadt (nominated). 

Since operetta is usually considered one point of origin for the musical, it’s interesting to see how Pirates is gathered into the Broadway fold. The result is a mixed bag. In the pit, Brandon Adams conducts an orchestra of 12 from Local 6. Many cast members have opera credits and background. There’s something in the rescoring, perhaps, that makes for a little fuzziness in some of the singing and much of the dynamics. In particular, the adroit G & S shifts from deadpan parody to arch comedy, galloping off into total burlesque (probably inspired by Offenbach) seldom come across so delectably, though spirited choruses of beautiful maidens and querulous cops—and some solid, knowing leads and character roles, especially Juliet Heller’s delightful Mabel and Carson Church’s Sergeant of Police—bridge the gap betwixt one stylized form (or its parody) and its looser godchild. Still, there’s some disparity; one spectator—a musician, though neither operatic nor cabaret, remarked that one singer sounded like a voice out of a Disney musical. 

But it’s all great fun, with an enthusiastic audience and a lot of juice up onstage, with a striking Pirate King (Robert Robinson), Gene Brundage singing that old chestnut “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” Heller’s splendid rendition of “Poor Wandering One!” to John Walbolt--and excellent production values (Robert Broadfoot, set designer), set off by Union Jack and Jolly Roger, as well as some new additions to Graciela Daniele’s choreography by Jody Jaron: the beautiful maidens spinning like demure dandelion fluff on the breeze, fretting if they should doff their hats and gloves (then getting down to petticoats); the truncheon-wielding bobbies spieling those lines poet Marianne Moore quoted as illustrative of satiric song: “And yet when someone’s near/We manage to appear/As unsusceptible to fear/As anybody here.” 

The very title, The Pirates of Penzance, is a G & S oxymoron, like saying “The Gang-Wars of Carmel.” In any form, it remains fun, tongue-in-cheek—and seeing it at Woodminster is like taking a quick vacation. 


8 p.m. Sept. 11-14 at Woodminster Amphitheatre at Joaqin Miller Park, 3300 Joaqin Miller Road, Oakland. $23-38 (discounts for children and seniors; limited Kids Come Free program. 531-9597.