Theater programming usually doesn’t get any more conservative than Gilbert & Sullivan, late 19th century purveyors of light opera and bad puns. But Chicago’s avant-garde company The Hypocrites’ Theatre’s returning smash production of The Pirates of Penzance shows a new spin on an old G & S to be one of the more exciting musicals of the summer season. So exciting, in fact, that I declare this show to be not only worth the drive out to Olney Theatre Center to check them out, but your DUTY to go see them.
DUTY (caps intended) is the overarching theme and conflict of all Gilbert and Sullivan shows, but especially Pirates (subtitle The Slave of Duty), where an entire wall of the theater is covered in a pair of giant sails that proclaim DUTY to all who enter. The twisty plot, which requires special summary for the Hypocrites’ streamlined version, follows young Frederic who was mistakenly apprenticed to a band of pirates by his nursemaid. We meet him on the night he is to be freed of his indentures, vowing to return to slay his pirate comrades, for he finds their nefarious ways detestable, though he supported them in his sense of DUTY to his apprenticeship. A convoluted mess results, including an exception to his contract that involves leap years and Frederic falling in love with literally the first woman he sees.
Not the cleanest plot or the most emotionally compelling, and the operetta of Gilbert & Sullivan may be the most old-fashioned tunes that currently produced musical theater offers. So why is this play so exciting? Like the best of blacksmiths, the Hypocrites forge these tired old pieces into something entirely new: a joyous celebration filled with unexpected moments of virtuosity and, as importantly, a circumspection that acknowledges the 19th century shortcomings of a 21st century production.
The key to this production is musicianship on all levels. In composition, Pirates (which usually runs a tormenting 2 and a half hours) strips each of the 28(!) songs of the operetta to its barest bones, leaving the production a lean 80 minutes that manage to tell a clear story with a few exceptions here and there. In arrangement, the co-adaptors, Sound Designer, and Music Director (Sean Graney, Kevin O’Donnell, and Andra Velis Simon, respectively) have taken much of the opera out of this operetta, but all to the good. While maintaining many of the most delicate harmonies, some of the songs are transformed into rock jams or folky frolics that smack more of the summer beach party of the set design than the opera house, including hilarious musical quotes from 80’s metal.
Most impressive, however, is the execution of the musicianship. Pirates is an actor-muso musical, which is the term for a musical where all the instruments are played by the actors. But this concept deepens rather than cheapens the musical experience. I counted 6 guitars, 2 mandolins, a banjo, a harmonica, a musical saw, a toy piano, and a xylophone among the instruments, with several I’m sure I wasn’t able to catch, all played to perfection.
The Pirates of Penzance
closes August 17, 2018
Details and tickets
The vocals don’t suffer either. Any singer will tell you that performing multipart harmony while moving and being quiet is the hardest task asked of musical theater performers. This entire cast does that very thing multiple times throughout the production and with such grace that it creates the enviable and elusive harmonic aura so prized among choral directors. These moments come at well-reasoned and plot-driven times, like in “With Cat-Like Tread” where the Pirates and Policemen (don’t ask) are trying to surprise each other.
What shouldn’t be surprising, with that in mind, is the top class of design accompanying the performance. I’ve seen hundreds of shows in my lifetime, and I can easily identify Pirates as having the best sound design of any show I’ve seen. Perfect balance in all corners of the space and at all volumes. Clarity in the speed of patter songs (rarely can you usually decipher all the words of “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General). Crisp gentility in the quiet and languid moments (the love duet “Ah Leave Me Not to Pine” almost brought me to tears in this very silly context).
But the other design elements also bring contemporary principles to this 19th century play. Pirates uses what they call “promenade seating,” and what I call the future of theater, that combines the normal fixed seating of the theater in ¾ thrust with seating among the actors. This means you can sit on the stage, in the swimming pools and picnic benches, and on the pier running through the center of the beach ball covered set. You may be asked to move during the show if you choose to sit there, but the rules for such are clearly defined at the outset, and this cast makes these asks so natural that it is actually a pleasure to move around and get different perspectives on the play. If you sit on the regular seats, you don’t need to move, but you’ll have to watch out for beach balls to go flying throughout the preshow concert.
This immersive style set, acknowledging and involving the audience, combined with the frolicsome nature of this classic light opera and unbelievable virtuosity of the cast, makes this a model adaptation for the 21st century. Even more, using self-deprecation to reject some of the misogyny in the script shows both an awareness that could have easily been missed and an attention to detail that can only come from the most productive of rehearsal processes.
The Hypocrites’ Pirates of Penzance shows the world what it needs in theater today: a reversal and rejection of outdated morals and modes of interpretation, a show that demands liveness and revels in the risk that liveness creates, and an expertise that can only be appreciated in person. There’s no theater in DC that does these things as well as the Hypocrites, though I hope our local artists will take inspiration from them, so catch them while you can. Maybe then these Pirates can board your heart as they’ve boarded mine.
The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan, adapted by Sean Graney and Keven O’Donnell. Directed by Sean Graney. Featuring Mario Aivazian, Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carillo, Matt Kahler, Tina Munoz Pandya, Dana Saleh Omar, Shawn Pfautsch, Steven Romero Schaeffer, Leslie Ann Sheppard, Lauren Vogel, and Aja Wiltshire. Scenic Design by Tom Burch. Costume Design by Alison Siple. Lighting Design by Heather Gilbert. Sound Design by Kevin O’Donnell, Music Direction by Andra Velis Simon. Stage Management by Miranda Anderson. Produced by Olney Theatre Center, The Hypocrites and The House Theatre of Chicago. Reviewed by Alan Katz.