Similar to many people's formative experiences with Shakespeare, one's opinion of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's late 1800s comic operettas are often shaped by an unfortunate introduction. Like Shakespeare, the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are sometimes overly long, ponderously staged, and unintelligible to modern audiences. But an enlightening first exposure can create a positive impression that opens the mind to a lifetime of appreciation.
Mauckingbird Theatre Company's superb production of The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan's sublimely silly 1880 hit, is such a seminal experience.
Some may say I exaggerate, but I've encountered many a young person whose view of the classics was calcified by one unfortunate brush with poorly presented greatness. For someone resistant to Gilbert and Sullivan — not me, for I was saved by director/choreographer Brian MacDonald's brilliant 1980s Stratford Festival revivals — Mauckingbird's Pirates is a revelation.
The gay lens
Director Peter Reynolds's production succeeds on a variety of levels, unified by Mauckingbird's signature "gay lens,” which, in their 10-year history, has successfully envigorated Shakespeare and other classics. Purists may howl in outrage, but Friday night's sold-out house howled in laughter at Reynolds' gentle tweaking of Pirates's saccharine romance.
Jake Blouch plays the Pirate King with a lascivious gleam reminiscent of The Rocky Horror Show's Frank-n-Furter. Dressed in sparkling purple, he's an equal-opportunity lecher defeated only by his innate goodness (the subtitle, "The Slave of Duty," is a clue). Garrick Vaughan plays indentured pirate Frederic, who we meet as he receives his freedom on his 21st birthday, and falls in love with a young maiden, Mabel (Laura Whittenberger, a tiny blonde with a huge voice). The pirates capture her siblings, whom they intend to marry. Since pirates and siblings are both men and women, they join in combinations not allowed in Gilbert and Sullivan's time.
The siblings are saved by Stanley (Larry Lees), who sings the show's most famous song, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General." It’s one of the duo’s trademark patter songs that Lees sings incredibly fast with several encores, while also revealing Stanley's naughty side. The silly story ends hilariously, with many innuendoes (and a few not-so-subtle sexual jokes, particularly using nightsticks as phalluses) that add a modern twist without denigrating the material. Reynolds also trims Pirates to less than two hours without sacrificing the integrity of the story, characters, or music.
The cast of professionals, recent Temple graduates, and current Temple students (some of whom will star in Hairspray in October, directed by Reynolds, and now a must-see) are spectacular. Others in featured roles include Lindsay Mauck as the beleaguered Sergeant of Police and Kimberly Oppelt as Frederic's protector Ruth, but, truly, every performer excels.
The cast of 19 is pared down from the huge chorus most productions offer, allowing us to connect with all the characters. Reynolds’s sprightly staging, with Dann Dunn's choreography and Josh Kachnycz's fight work on Andrew Laine's cleverly spacious set, is much more dynamic and creative than the traditional D'Oyly Carte Players's blocking still duplicated today with stiff reverence. This piano-accompanied version (music direction by Amanda Morton and Michael Pacifico) focuses on the performers, whose impressive voices allow every word to be clearly understood and vividly acted. The characters are further defined by Marie Anne Chiment's dazzling costumes, which make the pirates a glittering, bright-colored, fantastical band decorated by Karen Yeash's mischievous make-up design.
Forgive me for gushing, but The Pirates of Penzance is just so damn fun, so gorgeous and silly, I just can't help myself. This is how classics should be produced: not with grim worship, but with affection and innovation, inspired by the original. If such productions happened more often, people wouldn't have to unlearn their biases against classics.