The dispute if Gilbert and Sullivan wrote operas or operettas may never be resolved, but one thing is certain: William Gilbert's devilishly clever lyrics are next to impossible for American audiences to understand.
What can a mortal get out of the opening of "The Pirates of Penzance, or the Slave of Duty,” if the Sondheim-class text whizzes by in a muffled chorus:
"For today our pirate ’prentice
Rises from indenture freed;
Strong his arm, and keen his scent is
He’s a pirate now indeed!"
The Lamplighters to the rescue. The venerable company's current production of "Pirates" is a rare combination of wonderfully clear diction and use of supertitles.
Even for a veteran G&S fan, the new-found understanding of the lyrics is similar to hearing a Wagner opera with projected translation for the first time.
The user-friendly feature is but one element making this among the very best G&S productions I've seen here or in the composers’ British homeland.
Great-looking (Peter Crompton's sets, Melissa Wortman's costumes), well sung and directed (Phil Lowery), an orchestral delight, consistently vibrant and alive, it’s a production to see several times.
Sir Arthur Sullivan's greatest tune — "Poor wandering one!" — will haunt you, just as it did after Linda Ronstadt made it a big hit for millions otherwise unfamiliar with G&S.
Two alternating casts feature appealing comic actors singing and dancing as maudlin pirates, perky maidens and cordial cops, serving up mirth and music. The large cast and unusually excellent chorus form a splendid ensemble.
Michael Desnoyers and Joshua La Force share the role of Frederic, the conflicted and excessively moral pirate apprentice. It's probably not a spoiler to say that the lovely Mabel (Moira McManus, Brett Ruona) will eventually guide silly Frederic to be practical enough to embrace married bliss.
Charles Martin's Pirate King is swashbuckling, swaggering, reckless, albeit helplessly soft-boiled next to the orphans. (Jason Sarten has the role in the other cast.)
Sara Couden and Katy Daniel play Ruth, the scatterbrain, love-struck pirate nursemaid.
Jonathan Spencer portrays the blustery Major-General in both casts. His musical autobiography as "the very model of a modern major general” is a show-stopping hoot.
Presented by Lamplighters Music Theatre
Where: Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 19-20; 2 and 8 p.m. Aug. 21; 2 p.m. Aug. 22
Tickets: $14 to $47
Contact: (415) 978-2787; www.lamplighters.org