In general, lots of comic gold in Good Company's 'Pirates of Penzance'

The Fresno BeeMay 21, 2014 

Richard Adamson as Major-General Stanley in "The Pirates of Penzance" by Good Company Players.


Is Richard Adamson the very model of a modern Major-General?

Well, he did live for eight years in Great Britain, where he had the pleasure "of drinking port and smoking cigars at the Cavalry and Guards Club (the famed London gentleman's club) on several occasions — and dined once at High Table at Eton."

On the other hand, he has little practical experience fighting pirates.

But part of the fun of playing Major-General Stanley — one of the great roles in Gilbert and Sullivan's classic operetta "The Pirates of Penzance" — is spending a few hours at each performance in the shoes of a larger-than-life character from a different era. The comic romp, which focuses on an apprentice to a band of tender-hearted pirates who falls in love with the daughter of the stuffy Major-General, has long entranced audiences with its witty, tuneful barbs at Victorian Era social norms.

We caught up with Adamson via email to talk about the Good Company Players production, now in its opening weekend at Roger Rocka's Dinner Theater.

Question: Have you played the Major-General before, or is this your first shot at the role?

This is my second production of "Pirates," but in the last production I was in (at the College of Sequoias in Visalia), I played the Sergeant of Police.

Your character is certainly confident — and accomplished, according to the famed "Major-General's Song" he sings. Do you really think he can write a "washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform," or is he prone to exaggeration?

The Major-General is certainly convinced of his own abilities, but he is also a parody of many of the officers of the British army in the 19th century. It was not uncommon for "men of letters" to serve as officers in the armed forces of the Raj, and much more value was placed on "generalist" education in that era than it is today. The ink on his social credentials is, however "scarcely dry," and as we discover, his lofty airs are more than a tiny bit put on.

How does your own personality compare with the Major-General's? Do you ever have days when you feel particularly British-uppity-blustery?

One of my younger colleagues in the dressing room said to me recently that the story that I just finished telling was "the most pretentious thing he had ever heard," so I suppose that I can bluster with the best of them.

You sing arguably the best-known Gilbert & Sullivan song of all time — and, indeed, one of the best-known theater songs ever. Is that a daunting task? How tough is the "Major-General's Song" for you as a tongue-twister?

It is certainly a privilege to get to perform such a renowned number. And a lot of fun, to be honest. The strong rhyme scheme and limited melodic line made learning it quite easy, the speed simply comes with repetition. Although one usually doesn't audition with music from the show being produced, I prepared the Major-General's Song as my audition piece … I guess it worked!

Tell us a little about the production. Is director Laurie Pessano setting it in the customary time period?

This production uses the customary juxtaposition of late Victorian gentry and 17th century pirate garb. The beautifully painted set is a great example of the theater style of the era. Laurie has staged an energetic romp that is sure to please both younger and older audiences. It certainly leaves me "breathless" at times.

Is "Pirates" simply all fun and games? Or are there larger themes to be discovered?

The subtitle of the work, "A Slave of Duty," points toward many of the themes that Gilbert touches on. The social expectations of the Victorian era seem almost unbelievable to a 21st century listener. Gilbert was a master at lampooning the social norms of his era and exposing the hypocrisies that typified the stratified social code of Victorian England. While the shocking prospect of a marriage between a "respectable" daughter of a Major-General and a pirate may not cause quite the scandal it would have in 1885, the edgy quality of Gilbert's social criticism can still be appreciated.

Tell us a little about yourself — what you do for a living, past theater experience, etc.

I'm semi-retired, having worked professionally in the theater, as a teacher and in the ministry. I relocated to Fresno in 2009 and have been seen in productions of the Woodward Shakespeare Festival and most recently in the Good Company Players production of "The King and I."

I am also active with the California Opera Association and have directed "La Traviata," "Lucia di Lammermoor" and "Cosi fan Tutti" for them, as well as designing sets for "Madama Butterfly," "The Barber of Seville," "Il Tabarro," "Suor Angelica" and "I Pagliacci."

I hold a graduate degree in music theater production from the Conservatory of Music and Performing Arts in Hamburg, Germany, and earlier in my career was fortunate enough to have assistant directed at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, the Hamburg State Opera and the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Do you have any daughters? If so, would you ever let one of them marry a pirate?

I'm afraid I am "not the marrying sort," but I feel that in matters of the heart, who am I to stand in the way of love?

Theater preview

"The Pirates of Penzance," through July 13, Roger Rocka's Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave., (559) 266-9494. $29-$50


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at

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