There came a point toward the end of How I Became a Pirate (which opened this weekend at Adventure Theatre MTC) when, during an ensemble musical number, my eyes were darting from one part of the stage to another. I noticed that Captain Braid Beard was effortlessly juggling three balls.
I thought that was a perfect metaphor for this production. The show is a rich tapestry: there is always something clever and engaging happening; the terrific seven-member cast invests completely in the piece; and Jenny Male, who directed and choreographed, impressively keeps all the balls in the air for the play’s hour-long duration.
My twins and I have seen a lot of theatre for young audiences over the last few years. (Appropriately, as they are a young audience.) Much of it has been of extremely high quality. But if there’s anything we’ve seen that tops Adventure MTC’s current offering, I would be hard-pressed to think of it at the moment.
How I Became a Pirate is typical of much theatre geared toward children in that it is an adaptation of a book (written by Melinda Long with illustrations by David Shannon). It is atypical in that I would recommend this show to almost anyone, regardless of whether children will accompany them; it’s that accomplished.
The story is simple. Our young hero, Jeremy Jacob, is playing on the beach when he meets a band of pirates. They take him to their ship, instruct him in the mores of pirating, engage in a few adventures, and then (spoiler alert) get him back home in time for a soccer game.
As soon as we entered the venue (Adventure Theatre MTC is ensconced in Glen Echo Park), I was struck by Samina Vieth’s set, which wonderfully creates the illusion of depth on a stage that isn’t particularly big. The floor treatment and the set’s colors are unusually handsome.
Not long into the show, as we hear the pirates singing off-stage, it became clear that the cast voices are terrific. Male’s choreography meets the challenge of not feeling cramped during the tight opening setting on a beach. Once the drops are, well, dropped to reveal the ship set behind them, she and her cast cavort delightfully and elegantly all over it, and into the audience as well.
The score (Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman share credit for book, lyrics, and music) is catchy and some of the harmonies are quite complex, if once in a while a melody put me in mind of The Little Mermaid. (The adapters seem to have updated the piece a bit. Would selfies have been referenced in a book published in 2003?)
The play was laugh-out-loud funny for this adult (and for a couple adults behind me). Adapters Vogt and Friedman don’t shy away from references that are sophisticated (Cole Porter lyrics) as well as playful (the theme to Gilligan’s Island).
And Male strikes the delicate balance of mining that humor deftly without losing the kids. After one number, as I was making a note, my daughter, beaming with delight, chided me: “Clap, Daddy!”
The staging is detailed; the pace is brisk, but not rushed; the acting engaged the children, but wasn’t pushed.
I really loved Kelsey Painter as Jeremy. She accessed the character’s wonder delicately and was the perfect proxy for the kids in the audience. The performance, like the production, respects its young audience and engages them as equals, not as people who need to be talked down to. This is smart theatre for smart kids.
How I Became a Pirate
closes October 22, 2017
Details and tickets
Other cast standouts include Danny Bertaux as Sharktooth the Pirate. His song about how he is really a sensitive guy underneath was a true showstopper. Gregory Atkin is Swill the Pirate and is a swell comic presence throughout. His wordless physical bit that buttons a nifty storm sequence was a treat.
It is Peter Boyer as Braid Beard who keeps things moving and delivers a lot of the exposition (as well as many of the cultural allusions) and who smoothly shows a side of his character that is, shall we say, less than fearsome. (Truth be told, these pirates turn out to be a pretty friendly bunch.)
Awa Sal Secka as Pirate Pierre has a solo that showcases a really dynamite voice, and makes us wish that she sang by herself more often during the play. Michelle Huey is Max the Pirate, who has a parrot affixed to her/his shoulder while s/he’s singing, dancing, and fencing. (I was also impressed how patient she was as she and I coaxed my daughter to pet the parrot during one actor foray into the audience.)
Male keeps all of her actors alive in every scene. No one steals focus; rather, they are supporting the moment in fully-fleshed and individual ways. No one epitomizes that more than Sarah Anne Sillers as Pirate Seymour Braunschwagger — a delightful supporting performance that exemplifies the depth of the acting talent.
In case I haven’t made it clear how much I loved this show, let me say that it left me wishing that I could come back for a second act.
Also, as you may know, critics get in for free. My brother’s kids are coming down from Baltimore in a couple of weeks, and I liked this so much, I might take them. And pay for the tickets.
How I Became a Pirate, Based on the book by Melinda Long and Illustrated by David Shannon. Book, Lyrics, and Music by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman. Directed and Choreographed by Jenny Male. Featuring Gregory Atkin, Danny Bertaux, Peter Boyer, Michelle Huey, Kelsey Painter, Awa Sal Secka, and Sarah Anne Sillers. Music Director: Dustin Merrell. Costume Designer: Robert Croghan. Scenic Designer: Samina Vieth. Lighting Designer: Kristin A. Thompson. Sound Designer: Neil McFadden. Stage Manager: Samantha Wilhelm. Properties & Puppets Designer: Andrea “Dre” Moore. Produced by Adventure Theatre MTC. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.