Pirates of Penzance

Movie Information

Genre: Comic Opera
Director: Wilford Leach
Starring: Kevin Kline, Angela Lansbury, Linda Rondstadt, George Rose, Rex Smith
Rated: G

Your appreciation of this film version of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera will largely depend on two factors: How you feel about the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, and your tolerance (or lack thereof) for filmmaking that tries too hard to preserve the theatricality of a stage production.

Regarding the latter factor, it’s just too easy to mistake broad acting and staginess for theatricality, and that’s exactly what stage director-turned-filmmaker Wilford Leach did with this filmic attempt to capture Joseph Papp’s stage production. Perhaps that’s not too surprising, since Leach had directed the Papp production, which had already been taped for TV three years before the film was made. (This, as much as anything, probably accounts for the film’s disastrous box-office performance).

Leach seems utterly mired in the staginess of it all – a problem exacerbated by his insistence on presenting the film with patently unreal stage settings. Charitably, the sets look like those of a low-grade TV special. Uncharitably, they look like something you’d find in a Sid and Marty Kroft children’s show with characters frolicking about in animal drag. It doesn’t help that no one other than Linda Ronstadt seems to know how to perform in a manner that isn’t geared to appeal to the last row of the highest balcony seat in a theater.

This approach works OK for Kevin Kline, who plays the Pirate King and makes the viewer feel in on the joke, and for George Rose as the Major General. But it comes across as awkwardly amateurish in the subordinate characters — not to mention romantic lead Rex Smith, who looks like a refugee from an ’80s “hair band,” only with somewhat less charisma.

All that to one side — and it’s a good bit to put aside — the material is strong enough to survive the film’s shortcomings. Ronstadt’s “Poor Wandering One” is completely charming, and Rose’s “Modern Major General” is classic. Moreover, the film has occasional flashes of brilliance, such as an extended comedic scene that takes its cue from the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera and leaves a certain production I won’t name in shambles.

All in all, the film is a mixed bag, but the parts that work make it worthwhile. Still, viewers may want to follow this one up by checking out Victor Schertzinger’s 1939 film of The Mikado and Mike Leigh’s splendid Gilbert and Sullivan biopic, Topsy Turvy, both of which are available on DVD. Rated G

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

[Hosts Jerry Crouch and John Bridges will present Pirates of Penzance at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 24, in Pack Memorial Library’s Lord Auditorium.]

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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