Monday, February 19, 2018

Park Square's Pirates of Penzance Reinvents A Genre (In a Great Way)

Sacred cows of the theater be warned: your days of being untouchable are careening towards a swift end. 


Photo by Petronella Ytsma

And what great news that is! Seriously, I've been advocating for years, ad nauseam (#sorrynotsorry), that we need to really feel comfortable revising things for the modern age. Shakespeare is fine and all but there is no reason we need to perform 5+ hour long shows in britches and codpieces and slow vaunted tones. It's totally possible to take a scalpel (or a more woodchopper approach if you're feeling feisty) to old pieces and actually - gasp! - improve them through judicious editing.

Photo by Petronella Ytsma

With that said, we all know I'm willing to give points immediately to anyone with the cajones to actually take such an approach to a beloved classic. I was not expecting this to be the case at Park Square Theatre's new production of The Pirates of Penzance - in fact, this is one of the few old shows I'd probably be fine with leaving as-is because I enjoy the original so much - but I was deliciously surprised to find that this is not at all the same old show we've all seen many times. Three huge huzzahs to the delightful editing from Doug Scholz-Carlson and Bradley Greenwald, which manages to somehow shorten the entire run-time of this show without cutting any songs (although some have been modified); add in a bunch of surprisingly fascinating trivia about the real Gilbert and Sullivan; and overall just breathe fresh air through all the dusty cobwebs of a timeworn story.

Photo by Petronella Ytsma

The overall tale of The Pirates of Penzance is the ultimate farce of a marauding band: a troupe of pirates who can't seem to turn a profit due to their merciful natures is hoodwinked by a major general, who lies about his parentage to keep them from hauling off his unwed daughters. At the heart is the pirate apprentice Frederic, a young man who would do anything to become a respectable member of society but is bound by an interminable sense of duty to remain in the pirates' employ. A pirate king, a bawdy band of policemen, a surprisingly brave daughter and a whole host of ridiculous antics round out the story. In this fresh addition, a plot telling the true story of how The Pirates of Penzance was initially conceived, written and performed runs concurrent with the musical itself, weaving in and out with factual asides and interesting side stories for consideration.

Photo by Petronella Ytsma

Much of this show's definitive success comes from the anchors of the cast. Bradley Greenwald preens across the stage in his concurrent roles as Arthur Sullivan and the Johnny Depp version of the Pirate King. His gorgeous voice is perfect for the part but he also manages to keep the show grounded and his comedic timing on point. This Pirates wouldn't be possible without him, and his touch is all over the show. Alice McGlave, as Mabel and Blanche Roosevelt (the original soprano who sang the role), lays her buttery soprano voice all over the music and brings an unexpected strength to her part. She's super charismatic and the vocal equivalent of an oaken Chardonnay, and I hope I get to see her perform in more shows. Christina Baldwin defies stereotype as the Major General and the Sergeant of Police, two traditionally male roles that she knocks out of the park. Her subversively modern feminist re-writes of several of the lyrical interludes make this performance contemporary and enlightening, and it was a real treat to see these vaunted roles performed in a totally new way.

Photo by Petronella Ytsma

The rest of the cast is equally great. Zach Garcia demonstrates a heavenly set of pipes in his parts as W.S. Gilbert and a member of the pirate and policeman bands; I hope to hear him sing more in the future, too. Max Wojtanowicz is surprising and heartwarming as Frederic, and lilts his approachable tenor through the tough verses. Elisa Pluhar is delightful as Ruth and brings a muscular presence to her part that I found endearing and fresh. The remaining performers - Charles Eaton, Elizabeth Hawkinson, and Victoria Price - admirably encompass the outstanding roles and make the staging feel far more lush than evidenced by the lean cast list. The same is true of the modest three-person pit, which does a great job of fleshing out the score (especially when supported by Greenwald and McGlave). It's a pleasure to see them sit on stage and get to participate in the performance, further enriching the "glance behind the curtains" feel to the show.

Photo by Petronella Ytsma

Such great attention to detail was paid throughout this production, for which I am very grateful. This starts with Director Doug Scholz-Carlson, Music Director Denise Prosek, and Movement and Dance Director Brian Sostek. Musicals can be notoriously costly and person-heavy productions; this lean team elegantly executes this show on a much bigger feeling than you would expect, and it's a treat to see their efforts rewarded. The set by Ursula Bowden has all sorts of hidden surprises and has the emotional impact of putting together a child's novelty LEGO set. There are all sorts of nooks and crannies and clever multitasking props, and what seems banal at the outset magically transforms as the action inspires. The costumes (by Rebecca Bernstein) are equally canny, with a dapper cut and many unexpectedly multi-use applications that again make the production feel much more lavish than it actually is. Lighting design from Michael Kittel is fresh and instantly transitions the audience between Gilbert and Sullivan's ship and the play itself. The sound mixing from Jacob Davis is excellent, not only providing a great musical mix but also allowing every word in each song to be heard. Anyone who has seen this show knows how important it is to use impeccable diction while performing it, and this is honestly the first time I can say that I was able to clearly hear every lyric enunciated.

Photo by Petronella Ytsma

Let me be totally honest: I was raised watching the delicious 1983 film adaptation starring Kevin Kline, Angela Lansbury and Linda Ronstadt which is, to my mind, the definitive version of this musical. I've seen several live iterations of the show, all of which strive to capture that original magic, and which usually fall somewhat short. I wasn't intending to see this particular version because I've watched it so many times and thought, what could possibly be different this time?

Photo by Petronella Ytsma

But I'm SO thankful that I did come! This revision swept me off my feet with its charm and energy, and I think it's the best on-stage iteration of Pirates of Penzance that I've seen to-date. The musical performances are shockingly lush considering that there are only nine people performing on stage, the set was innovative and charming, and the overall energy was engaging and vivacious. I actually learned several things I didn't know about Gilbert and Sullivan, and I had an outrageously good time laughing along with the audience and bathing in the beautiful harmonies from this terrifically talented cast. I can't recommend this staging highly enough, and even die-hard and time-worn Pirates of Penzance fans are guaranteed to find something new to love in this show - I promise. For more information or to buy tickets before the show closes on March 25, click on this link.

And as an important aside: if you enjoy this production, make sure to spread room on your calendar to check out Princess Ida from the Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company next month! Dedicated to all things Gilbert and Sullivan, this local troupe is putting on one of their lesser-known shows and it looks to be a hoot. I'll be going for the first time ever and I invite you to join me!