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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Pirates of Penzance: or the slave of Duty

Or: Not Quite the Very Model But Quite Good Enough For Me


Before begin I find myself Duty bound, to tell those others who dote upon Pirates (my own first and favorite and most cherished musical) that this is not your standard Gilbert and Sullivan. The music is still there to set your feet a’patter, the jokes (though pitched toward a 100 year old sense of humor) still land true, and the plot still vaults with olympian ease all hurdles of logic. But it has been denuded of its fine coat and top hat and dandy-ed up in novelty t-shirts, neon-shorts and crocs. The theatre is hung about with a jumble of gothic ruins, rigging, and inflatable beach toys while above supertitles announce the upcoming songs (complete with snide subtitles) and occasionally pitch out Piratical puns (their punchlines usually based upon “aarrrrr”). And you cannot help but notice that the sense of seriousness, the most vital ingredient of farce, lies stabbed and bleeding on the floor. Can this strange and marvelous play survive the turbulent tumble of the modern era and its irreverent energies? (Short answer: aye)


Off the coast of Cornwall the infamous but largely ineffective Pirates of Penzance, lead by the indomitable Pirate King (Alex Christ), celebrate the 21st year of their beloved apprentice Frederick (Benjamin Barker). However Frederick has decided to renounce the pirate life and, quite literally hounded by his Sense of Duty, resolves to bring his shipmates, the only family he knows, to swift and bloody justice. Seeking his tenderfooted way in the world Frederick meets and falls in love with Mabel (Michelle Schechter) eldest of the many daughters of Major General Stanley (Jared Corak). Together, with the help of the local constabulary led by a slightly sociopathic Sergeant (Megan McCandless) they must face shocking revelations, gory battles and patter songs galore.


Now, as I stated before, The Pirates of Penzance is my favorite musical and I’m quite protective of it, so I ask the crew, company and director Matt Hawkins (as good a name for a Pirate director as ever was plucked up) pardon while I settle my hash and take my gloves off. As with all Gilbert and Sullivan, the key to everything is a very English sense of seriousness; that these ridiculous rules, these musical communications, are exactly the way the world works. The pacing is sometimes fast where it should be slow (Fredrick’s sundering with Mabel) and slow where it should be fast (discussing the mistake that landed Frederick with the Pirates in the first place). I would plead as well to not rush through the scenes between numbers, to take the time to let the characters come to the horrifying conclusions; their suffering is our joy (and isn’t that the essence of humor right there). Also, the script is fine as it is: no need to clarify words or alter sentence structure so we can “get” it (though props on certain additions, especially “Ladies! Shut it down and walk away.” as primly given by 2nd GS’sD Edith (Christine Jones). Most grievously, in an effort to make the show ninety minutes and press the madcap fun to boiling point, several of the “slower” songs have been cut. A grave mistake sir! They might seem to be there for song’s sake but who dares sacrifice “Oh, Here is Love” or “Sighing Softly To the River”. The man is singing about losing his Daughter! It’s the “Slipping Through My Fingers” of the 1890’s! Cut THAT!? We are not amused.


But that said (and puritan and very unprofessional raving finished), I would hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with the delivery of the show. What Hawkins piteously sacrifices in terms of depth and sentiment he makes up for by a thousand fold flock of really smart, really surprising and quite hilarious sight gags. I could not name all the time I clapped my hands in wonder or shook with laughter, and in any case you should see them for yourselves. Hawkins is also an excellent director of movement and choreography, not a bad thing when commanding a cast of 30. Everyone knows where they are supposed to be, no gesture seems forced, no one is left mumming in the corner. This leads to fine, lively dances and exemplary fight sequences that crackle with both real danger and the best of slapsticky fun. He is well matched, musically, by the arrangements and homages and general spruces of Maestro Michael Kaish. A highly skilled music director, Kaish (with help from his guitarist and principal arranger Conner Keelan) not only faithfully transposes the beloved score but at times gives it steroid shots of the most surprising provence; you never would have thought an electric guitar could be fitted so well into Gilbert and Sullivan, or a sitar for that matter.


Under their director the assembled hoard buckles their swash with great gusto. Barker’s Frederick perfectly captures what a Gilbert and Sullivan hero should be: his electric emotions are swaddled in a simple seriousness that takes delight and anguish from the smallest of things, all tacked on to a spring clear tenor. He is nicely countered, musically and dramatically by Schechter’s Mabel; fierce as a lioness, show-offy as a showgirl, and a twice as piratical as any of the professed pirates. She even manages to invest Mabel’s arduous tenor (easily surmounted by her strong cords) with feeling and sense rather then merely presenting uncut gems of sound. Christ as the Pirate King is a delight to behold, as he still possesses much of that necessary seriousness, which becomes so very ruffled when his grand and glorious gestures don’t quite work out as he wants them. McCandless, by contrast, is much more grounded and contained, allowing the precious seriousness to accentuate and underline her thirst for law and order, both creepily and endearingly. Her clogging abilities and clear bell of a voice are also sights and sounds to behold.


As my Duty begged me to remind you, dear reader, this is not standard Gilbert and Sullivan. But despite the neutering of the plays capacity for drama it is a frolicsome joy to behold, everything Pirates ought to be as a musical and as a comedy. Well equipped to induce laughter, well tooled to bring our ears back to those blood thrumming tunes of yore and stalked full of good talents, Hawkins’s Pirates more than makes up for its sacrifices and we welcome it like a beloved, prodigal son. If you want a kick start of joy and a palate of well sung songs to hum along to for weeks after, I highly suggest you see the show. It’s not quite the very model of a modern major musical but it is certainly fine for me.

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