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Matthew Arnold triumphantly refuted 

Sure, you can take the tragic view of "Dover Beach" and conclude with poet Matthew Arnold that the clash of ignorant armies at night is emblematic of endless war, confusion, and pain. Yet every time I witness Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance, where inept buccaneers battle against inept British bobbies, the result is always comical.

A robust crowd converged on Halton Theater last Saturday night to witness the fray, filling nearly every seat in the orchestra for the CPCC Opera Theatre production. The yelps of delight and peals of laughter from young and old -- at almost every mirthful nook in W.S. Gilbert's 1879 libretto -- indicated that a large proportion of the huge throng were encountering this madcap operetta for the first time. Or had never seen it before with the wondrous clarification of supertitles. Thank you, Andy Rummel and Micky Fukasawa, wherever you are. But could we have the projection screen a bit lower next time?

Widespread unfamiliarity with the Pirates text and songlist helped buoy the atmosphere in the hall, which sounded like the hearty reaction to an outstanding production. Onstage, there was excellence enough to justify a smattering of acclaim, but not the superabundance required to sustain the enthusiasm of a knowing, discriminating audience.

After this amazing turnout and reception, let's glean all the good omens we can. Remembering the impoverished scenery at the Halton for CPCC's production of Giulio Cesare less than two years ago, the spacious designs by Julie Landman represent an astonishing advance. The robust 15-piece band conducted by Doug Crawley was at least as impressive.

As the swashbuckling but tender-hearted Pirate King, Jeffrey Braaten had some truly charismatic moments, and the supertitles certainly helped smooth over a few of the rough patches. Aided by the best of Katharyn Horne's choreography, Buddy Nash cut a serviceably ridiculous figure as Major General Stanley in the "Modern Major General" showpiece.

But as the heroic Frederic, the nobleman indentured to the pirate band until his 21st birthday, Skipper Johnson was too much of a handful for director Rebecca Cook-Carter to steer effectively. Instructions on the Dudley Do-Right rectitude of Frederic and his brave-new-world reaction to Stanley's daughters, most notably Mabel, seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Even so, Johnson was properly wary in conveying his instinctive revulsion toward Ruth, the 47-year-old housemaid who seeks to prey on Frederic's innocence.

Loretta Crosthwaite, destined by Cook-Carter to match up with the Major-General when things sorted out, was fittingly his equal in comedy as Ruth. Still, the evening's sensation was undoubtedly Jenny Chen, the soprano chosen to scale Mabel's eccentricities and coloratura. Her entrance was beautifully staged, and if her comedy exploits didn't eclipse Nash's or Crosthwaite's, they were still spirited. Chen triumphed in her opening aria, "Poor Wandering One," negotiating the famed vocalese passages with agility and honey-sweet tone. While the voice lost some of its freshness and power in Act 2, the fall-off didn't mar the goodwill evident in the audience's ovation. Why should it? Her soprano was still distinguishable as the full cast and orchestra performed the final bars.

Newcomers weren't initiated into all the comedy wonders of the G&S collaboration. Cook-Carter and music director Roxanne Holt-Watson didn't attempt the absurdity of the stealthy pirates approaching the Major General's estate "With Cat-like Tread," sung at the tops of their lungs. But the production delivered enough laughter throughout the evening to bring back newcomers for second helpings.

Not a gloomy prospect at all.

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