Review: Sailing on Silly Seas With ‘The Pirates of Penzance’

Review: Sailing on Silly Seas With ‘The Pirates of Penzance’

Yet while those cultists known as Savoyards may find fault, this “Pirates” turns out to be the most charmingly relaxed production of a Gilbert and Sullivan work that I’ve come across. And though it includes some interpolations from latter-day pop, it is also surprisingly true to the spirit of its 19th-century creators. (I say this with the sad authority of someone who appeared in a college production of “Pirates.”)

That means this show delivers period satire with a thorough appreciation of its artful, evergreen absurdity. To relish that sensibility, you do not have to be familiar with what’s being made mock of here: the hidebound institutions of parliament and the navy, the pieties of Victorian sentimentality and Italian operas in which improbably intricate plots were matched by the ornateness of the score.

An antic exuberance is built into the form and content of Gilbert and Sullivan shows. And the ensemble here, which doubles as its own band, channels that spirit with an infectious blitheness that requires no footnotes.

In a fleet 80 minutes (including a one-minute intermission), the show unpacks the tale of young Freddy (Shawn Pfautsch), an apprentice to a team of inept pirates who is just about to turn 21, when he will be free of his indentures. But there are complications, as there always are in 19th-century opera, involving divided allegiances and accidents of birth.


Matt Kahler as the Major-General in a production in which actors sing, play instruments and interact with audience members.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

These come to the surface when the dunes of Penzance are invaded by a squadron of dewy, gaily tripping maidens. They are the daughters of the Major-General (Matt Kahler), a military bigwig who is ultimately as talentless as Freddy’s mentor, the tenderhearted Pirate King (Robert McLean).

Though Freddy owes much to the smitten Ruth (Christine Stulik), the maternal crone who delivered him as a wee lad to the pirates, he immediately falls for the Major-General’s daughter Mabel, who has a knockout soprano voice. Mabel is also played by Ms. Stulik, who changes costumes faster than Superman and wields a cadenza the way an ace rock guitarist weaponizes power chords.

As the performers deliver this labyrinthine plot — playing guitar, accordion, banjo, saw and violin all the while — they move purposefully among the audience, gently displacing those who happen to be in their way. (The choreography by Katie Spelman is witty, but the cast members must think as well as dance on their feet.)

If you’re of a fanciful disposition, you may liken the movements of the dispersing crowd to those of the Red Sea after Moses commanded it to part. Or not.

In any case, you are sure to feel a joyful complicity with what’s occurring onstage, especially as Mr. Kahler’s wonderful, Monty Python-esque Major-General gropes for rhymes to fill out his fabled signature patter song. (You know, “I am the very model …”)

His outfit, by the way, is to die for — a combination of a long-tailed white jacket, matching Bermuda shorts and a pink lace shirt that might have been snatched off a Paris runway. The inspired costumes, which include fetching tiered tutus and Necco Wafer-colored bathing caps for his daughters, are by Alison Siple.

The music director, Andra Velis Simon, ensures that you never miss the presence of an orchestra. And Heather Gilbert did the essential pastel lighting, which when necessary plunges the show into a deep lavender twilight.

One of those blushing purple moments arrives for an invocation to the lyric spirit. “Hail, poetry,” sings the ensemble, as it files in silhouette across the boardwalk.

While the cast members, with a few exceptions, have displayed merely adequate voices up to this point, as a choir (aided by Kevin O’Donnell’s sound design) they suddenly sound truly heavenly.

Just as the duty-bound pirates explain that “with all our faults, we love our Queen,” the Hypocrites understand that there’s real beauty within the larky score of “Pirates,” and it demands occasional — and utterly sincere — obeisance.

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