Pirates of Penzance

Pirate King and crew

Photo by Stephen Moorer

By Philip Pearce

The School of Dramatic Arts (SoDA) at PacRep has just opened a rambunctious, updated and funny take on The Pirates of Penzance.

We’re no longer in late Victorian Cornwall. This is a 1990s Britain full of ponytails, cell phones and bouncing teeny-bopping school kids. Those glorious Gilbert and Sullivan tunes are still intact but they’re offered up with some shrewd rock rhythms and instrumentation by two keyboards, a drum and an electric guitar under the ever flexible and creative direction of Don Dally. And the dancing, choreographed by Mikey Perdue, whom I have never encountered before but hope will keep up the inspired footwork, is a high point of the show.

All in all the updating works well. Gilbert and Sullivan plots and characters are already so unbelievable and loony that they can stand any amount of tinkering without major damage, as Broadway proved way back in the 1930s with a highly popular “Hot Mikado.” Pirates is one of the most foolish of the whole G and S oeuvre. It starts with stolid hero Frederick learning that he was destined in childhood to be trained as a riverboat pilot, only to spend nearly 21 years in a crew of ineffective brigands plying the waters off one of England’s more respectable summer resorts, because his nursemaid thought his parents said “pirate.” Fred has such a highly developed sense of duty that he’ll fight to the death for his wicked shipmates till his pirate indentures run out at midnight, after which he will do everything in his power to sic the local police on the dastardly cutthroat bunch. Plot complications too complicated to bother you with build up before he ends up in the arms of one of fourteen vacationing adopted daughters of a retired Major General.

PacRep’s version of this nonsense is delicious to look at. Designer Patrick McEvoy provides a handsome pirate ship and a neat selection of back-projected Cornish coastal scenes. Director Stephen Moorer has organized plenty of imaginative crowd tussles and tableaux and makes it all bustle along on a note of controlled horseplay—the shenanigans always vigorous but never so as to get in the way of each new goofy plot revelation.

The cast is engagingly energetic, and that in a way is both a major strength and a minor weakness of the production. Everybody whizzes along at such a breakneck clip that some of the brighter puns and jibes of Gilbert’s lyrics get lost in quick line readings and swallowed consonants.

As Frederick, Arick Arzadon is so young and compact that I thought for a moment we were going to start with some kind of improvised back story of a boyhood at Eton, but he acts with the requisite vigor and sings with an accurate and pleasing tenor, though it occasionally ran out of breath at the end of long phrases on opening night. Soon enough he got linked up with an almost equally small and youthful Mabel Stanley, played by the heavenly, mini-skirted, pony-tailed Katie Hazdovac. She shines with particular luster when the production shifts from Cornish coastal back projections to a bough full of cutesy bluebirds from Disney’s Bambi, who chirp along with Hazdovac’s remarkable coloratura gymnastics in the usually soulful but here totally hilarious “Poor Wandering One.” (The program says “Wondering” but I’m pretty sure it’s a typo.)

And where would any local Pirates be without the substantial and flexible baritone and comic timing of Ken Cussen as an all-singing, all-dancing Model of a Modern Major-General Stanley? As required, his rendition went trippingly on the tongue and brought the house down.

I thought Christopher Scott Sullinger was just as fine and foolish in the role of Frederick’s first-act boss, The Pirate King. He has a comic swagger and a singing voice that projects not only the music but all the lyrics of “I Am a Pirate King.”

As his nemesis, the local police sergeant, Nico Abiera is a rubber-legged marvel in the tricky gyrations Perdue has choreographed for “A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy One” but all that opening night activity and some faulty projection sometimes swallowed up the wit and irony of Gilbert’s words.

As Ruth, Jennifer Foreman sings and performs charmingly, hampered only by looking too attractive to convince us that she’s Frederick’s plain and aging one-time nursemaid now turned pirate queen.

Any review of a show with such a big cast inevitably fails to mention a number of deserving performances. But I must tip my hat to the handling of the chorus numbers, especially those featuring the Major General’s variegated bevy of daughters. Each girl has a costume and manner that reflects her individual world view. And the degree of sibling animation ranges from saucy kicks and winks by the more extroverted to a lone crinkle-haired blonde who, never missing a note or a move, spends the evening staring gloomily through black gothic eye make-up at her 1990s version of an iPod.

Maybe some of the 1990s jokes crammed into Major General Stanley’s patter song fall a bit flat, and I was puzzled as to why the Penzance police force dresses like a bunch of bright red pantomime pixies, but by and large the new PacRep Pirates is a nicely reworked piece of classical British foolery.

It continues at the Golden Bough playhouse through February 22nd.