Review: The Pirates of Finance

Note: This review was posted to Savoynet on July 16, 2013.

Last night was the premiere of The Pirates of Finance at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The show was written by Hartford, Connecticut, resident Charles Veley, to a Sullivan score. The work has been under development for the past several years, with amateur performances at the G&S Festival in Gettysburg, and a reading by the Blue Hill Troupe in New York. This is its first professional production.

As the show begins, Frederick Freemarket (Preston Ellis) has just become CEO of the family investment company, which he inherited upon his uncle’s sudden demise. The company is worth twelve billion dollars, but its bank accounts are frozen due to over-leveraged investments in derivatives. Trying to help him out of this mess, are Clara Calculor, the CFO (Deborah Jean Templin); and Prudence Peergroup, the head of HR (Amber Nicole Guest).

Bill Brilliant (Jacob Thompson), the IT geek, thinks he can get the firm out of its predicament with his latest invention, the Cash Machine, a program trading system that looks like a NASA satellite. Except: he hasn’t quite got all the bugs out of it.

On Frederick’s first day as CEO, the lovely Elsie Gardener (Heather Lunstedt) shows up and asks for a job as the company nutritionist. (The script has more nutrition jokes than you ever thought possible.) Frederick falls instantly in love with her, and hires her on the spot, though we soon learn she’s hiding a dark secret. After Elsie spurns his advances, Frederick bans office romance across the company, to the frustration of Bill and Prudence, who are in a relationship, unbeknownst to their colleagues. Bill woos Prudence with hilarious Ralph Rackstrawish dialogue, as spoken by an IT nerd.

If those weren’t enough troubles, Frederick learns that he owns only half the company, and J. Geoffrey Behemoth (Christopher DeAngelis), a corporate raider, has bought the other half. He turns up with a chorus of comely analysts, sings the expected patter song, and reveals his evil plan to force Frederick out, take over the company, and put the Cash Machine to nefarious use.

The story ends with the usual Gilbertian twist — a few of them, actually — and by the finale, the whole company pair off, in Savoy fashion. The satire isn’t subtle, and with its reference to risky mortgage-backed securities, feels a bit dated already. But the production (in two acts, and a shade over two hours) sails along, thanks to Gary Slavin’s buoyant direction and witty choreography. I don’t think I ever stopped smiling, not even for a moment.

The music is drawn from the scores of eight G&S operas, especially Pirates and Iolanthe. The company posted brief excerpts on YouTube, which give a sense of the large concerted passages. After watching that clip, you’ll see links to a number of rehearsal videos, which feature actor interviews and other brief musical excerpts.

Just about all the material for the analysts is terrific, especially an “Andrews Sisters”-esque trio at the beginning of Act II, set to “We are dainty little fairies” from Iolanthe. Midway through Act II, a chorus of SEC regulators stopped the show. You read that right. The big ensembles are almost all successful, but the piece ends weakly, with an unimpressive Act II finale.

The capable orchestra consists of two keyboards, violin/viola, and percussion. A G&S fan shouldn’t have much trouble identifying the tunes (they’re listed in the program too), but they won’t all come to you immediately, as many of them are considerably transformed, and deployed in unexpected ways.

As a poet, author Charles Veley isn’t a Gilbert, but who is? Some of the lyrics are noticeably force-fit, perhaps as many as half. Even where that’s the case, the sparkling direction and energetic ensemble cast (mostly Equity) carry the day. I’m not going to critique performers individually, but the men’s diction was generally better than the women’s, and there is one performer that I’d replace entirely due to her diction. Fortunately, it was not on her to carry the show.

Costume Designers Anne Auberjonois and Amy Price dress the cast smartly in modern clothes. The unit set by David Goldstein consists mainly of a desk on wheels and movable partitions that the actors push around. Goldstein’s lighting missed its mark occasionally, but perhaps this will be corrected for later performances.

Overall, it is a great success for the company, and well worth seeing. Tickets are only $25, and there are three remaining performances: Thursday at 5pm and 9pm, Saturday at 9pm, in the Alice Griffin Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street near Tenth Avenue.

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