Review by Gillian Daniels
(Cambridge) The Hypocrites’ production of Pirates of Penzance is an absolute confection. Adapting the beloved Gilbert and Sullivan operetta to a quirkier, more contemporary stage, Sean Graney and Kevin O’Donnell infuse the original libretto and its score with banjos, bathing suits, beach balls, and a warmth that charms but never cloys. It’s energetic and just plain fun.
Premiering in New York in 1879, the original show has a long history of making audiences titter at lyrics like, “I am the very model of a modern major general.” The comic opera lampoons Victorian concepts of honor, piracy, politeness, the literary inconveniences of being a foundling, and, most importantly, duty.
Zeke Sulkes is Frederic, a reluctant apprentice to the Pirate King (Robert McLean). Now twenty-one, Frederic is released from the apprenticeship accidentally foisted on him by his old nurse, Ruth (Christine Stulik). Never having seen a young woman in his life, he devises to discover what one looks like and marry her. His first encounter is with the daughters of bafoonish Major-General Stanley (Matt Kahler), specifically the youngest, Mabel (again, Christine Stulik). Frederic sets forward to woo her, all while juggling his zealous belief in duty.
Attendees for this particular production are encouraged to roam around the beach-like stage, get drinks during the show, and even interact with the performers. The only warning is that the play is constantly on the move. Those who sit in the promenade section get a fair warning: if the performers have to be where you are, you’ll have to find a new place to sit. Those seeking a workout should buy a ticket for this area. All others should probably stick to more traditional seating arrangements.
This adaptation winks slyly and often at the audience. Existing dialogue is embroidered with more modern jokes, such as an allusion to milkshakes that bring all the boys to the yard. When the contemporary world bleeds into the Victorian, never do these moments overwhelm or undermine the story. Nothing feels forced here. The ensemble (Ryan Bourque, Emily Casey, Dana Omar, and others) keep their jokes as breezy as the plotline.
Pirates of Penzance stays true to the light and cheerful spirit of its source material. Gilbert and Sullivan, in past decades, have accrued a reputation as cultivated, formal, and, worst of all, educational theater. This is good in some ways, as W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan certainly deserve respect and study, but bad because performers who go forward with the breadth of their importance in mind give a stiff veneer to what should be fun, comic farce. The Hypocrites’ more organic production does the operetta form proud. To see professionals at work, I recommend purchasing a ticket right away.