The Pirates of Penzance Paints the Room with Joy (4.5 stars)

by Johnny Monsarrat

The Pirates of Penzance, May 10 to June 2, 2013, at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, MA 02138.

Gilbert and Sullivan were silly, silly playwrights, and The Pirates of Penzance is perhaps their most loved musical. Pirates, orphans, fair maidens, a Major General, and the police butt heads — and other parts of their bodies — in a comedy where no pun goes too far. When you enter the theatre, it feels like a summer party, with the performers playing music, throwing beach balls into the crowd, and interacting with the audience. One actor encouraged me and those sitting nearby to stand up, dance, and sing in the pre-show. You can sit right in the center of the action, because the production is staged so that attendees can sit underneath and around the actors. If you get in the way, the actors work around you or politely brush you aside. During the songs of the show, the actors got the audience to clap to the beat and put their hands up and wave back and forth.

The A.R.T. has made a specialty of turning theatre into party. At OBERON, another venue, you’ve hopefully seen their amazing production of The Donkey Show. No matter what mood you’re in, it’s impossible not to smile and get taken away by the The Pirates of Penzance. And while you shouldn’t talk during the performance, it’s a far more memory-making experience to bring a friend to this than to a traditional “sit down, shut up in the darkness” show. The lighting didn’t add much to the show, as the production stayed highly lit throughout, but the choice to place the audience on the stage more than made up for that. They even kept the energy going by keeping intermission to 60 seconds and placing a full bar on stage that was open through the entire show.

The play centers on Zeke Sulkes (Frederic) who is torn between his duty to be a pirate and his duty to fight pirates. It’s piiiirhaps not the most piiiractical plot to hang a musical on, but despite its campy tunes and dance, the play does speak to the deep themes of British friendship, loyalty, and love — not just to people, but to country and queen. Although I was not struck by any of the actors having “it”, that indefinable body language that makes a performer legendary, kudos to Matt Kahler (The Major General) whose combination of military pride with a teddy bear inside was hilarious and heartwarming. Kudos also go to and to the ensemble member with the red sideburns (someone please write me with a name, it’s not clear from the website!) whose every moment had a comedic twist, remarkable in a show that already had so many choreographed antics. That’s how an ensemble member moves up to the cast. Great job!

Antics are the strength of the production. From the Major General wearing duck slippers and the young maidens posing as cops by wearing moustaches, the costuming drove the beach party sense from beginning to end. Audience members are encouraged to dress like a pirate or partygoer, and because I was able to sit without anyone behind me, I kept my black leather hat on during the show. The constant movement and laughs kept the momentum going through the lesser second act of the script. This was the first time I’ve ever seen Pirates of Penzance that I was kept riveted to the end, not slightly bored. The production did not shy away from changing the lyrics and lines to drive additional comedy. At one point, a high pitched solo sung by Christine Stulik (Ruth/Mabel) is transformed into a lovers scene behind a curtain as she and Frederic consumate their love. WIth a wink to the crowd, rather than taking themselves seriously, they rhyme ‘strategy’ with ‘colonoscopy’. The show is safe for small children, by the way.

Unfortunately, while the Pirates of Penzance lifts spirits high as an upbeat party experience — they paint the room with joy! — an opportunity was lost to heighten the music. The Pirates of Penzance is among the great musicals of all time, with exceptionally strong showtunes that should have been easy to convey. Although having the actors carry instruments and play their own music was a brave choice, surely intended to foster the party atmosphere, it distracted from their acting and singing, and made it difficult to hear the vocals against the instruments. Being so close (and among) the actors it was weird to also hear them from distant loudspeakers along the far wall and since the venue is not enormous, perhaps the microphones should have been turned off. Some of the actors chose a tremulo style of singing more suited to opera than musicals, some chose to “talk sing” which was occasionally rushed. This interfered with the clarity of the melodies and harmonies, except for songs like “Hail, Poetry!” that were sung more like a chorus. Also, the plot of the second act of The Pirates of Penzance is confusing enough as written without using the same cast members for multiple roles. I am sorry to say that I only came away humming tunes from my memory of the show, not from the production I saw.

Despite these concerns, I was tempted to give the show a 5-star rating. You really must not miss this production, which will put you in a giddy, silly mood for a week. The laughs are frequent and loud. I am pleased to give The Pirates of Penzance a 4.5 star rating, or perhaps a 5 if you already know and love the musical, or you’re having a bad week and need to feel like a kid again.

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