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Ahoy! Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Pirates of Penzance' is pure levity

Preview: "Pirates of Penzance," the final show of MCT Community Theatre's 2002-2003 season, shows May 1-4 and 7-11 at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts, 200 N. Adams St. Curtain times are 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Wednesdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $14-$18, available at the box office, 728-7529.

There's a funny thing that happens as theatrical hits go from first-run popularity, to familiar favorites, to "classics." By the time they've matured to that third stage of life in the public consciousness, great works of theater and film are usually not as well known as people think they are.

Take "Pirates of Penzance." Old hat, right? Probably saw it on a classic film channel, or maybe at the theater when you were a kid? But think for a minute Š do you actually know for sure whether Frederic gets the girl, or whether it's the Pirate King or the Major General who wins out in the end? If you do, you're likely in the minority. If you don't, this weekend might be a good time for a refresher course, as the MCT Community Theater puts on a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan's classic comic operetta.

"Pirates" offers a window into a world before Broadway, before film; those bygone days when musical theater had not yet diverged as a wholly separate tradition from opera - and when those warbly voiced singers were regarded as the most beloved theatrical stars of the day. These days it's hard to imagine the Metropolitan Opera putting on a performance of "Cats" or to imagine a Broadway company selling "La Traviata" to the tourist masses. But in the late 19th century, those boundaries hardly existed, as dramatic theater, grand opera and comic operetta stood side by side as the most popular forms of performing art.

Perhaps more importantly, "Pirates" also offers a glimpse into the comic genius of William S. Gilbert and Arthur S. Sullivan. Over the course of a quarter century, the duo produced a string of enduring hits, including "H.M.S. Pinafore" and "Mikado." "Pirates," their fifth collaboration, was written in 1879, and tells the tale of an apprentice pirate named Frederic, and his efforts to terminate his indenture to the Pirate King. In a style that hearkens to the comic operas of Mozart - and that predates the confused madness of modern-day films like "Snatch" - "Pirates" draws most of its laughs out of a series of back-and-forth deceptions, misunderstandings and miscues that twist into a seemingly impenetrable - and very funny - knot, only to disentangle into a perfectly happy ending.

Typical of Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular musical comedies, "Pirates" breezes along thanks to a combination of impeccable comic timing, snappy action, and hum-it-on-the-way-home tunesmithy. Any work of musical theater is only as strong as its music; and Sullivan proved himself an able match to Gilbert's wit. The breakneck patter-song, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General," is familiar to people who don't even know what show it comes from. The show is littered with other light classics of the genre, including "When A Felon's Not Engaged" and "Poor Wandering One."

Make no mistake: Like most comic operetta, this isn't intellectually sophisticated fare.

"It has depth - not depth of theme, but emotional depth," said MCT Executive Director (and "Pirates" stage director) Jim Caron. "We're dealing with a piece that doesn't have a serious bone in its body.

"But it seems like in this particular era we're in right now, it's nice to take a couple of hours off and experience something that doesn't mean a darn thing," continued Caron. "It's just pure entertainment."

MCT's production features several familiar faces, and one homecoming, as Curt Olds returns to Missoula's stage as the Pirate King. Olds is a native of Butte, and has performed both on Broadway (in "Riverdance") and in opera theaters and on concert stages around the world. He's joined in the cast by MCT vets Anne Basinski and David Cody, as well as local legend Margaret Johnson, who appears as part of the gang of pirates.

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