Review: ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre

The Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre’s (SSMT) production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance breathes fresh and hysterically contemporary life into an older operetta.

Russell Rinker and the male ensemble. Photo by C. King Photography.
Russell Rinker and the male ensemble. Photo by C. King Photography.

Brilliantly directed by Jeremy Scott Blaustein, with very crisp musical direction from Karen Keating, The Pirates of Penzance is an 1879 operetta with music by Arthur Sullivan and book and lyrics by W.S. Gilbert.

Frederic, a young man, was accidentally apprenticed to a band of pirates, due to an error by his hard-of-hearing nursemaid, Ruth. On his twenty first birthday, his apprenticeship is complete and Frederic leaves the Pirate King and his tender-hearted band of pirates to rejoin the civilized world. Frederic soon meets the numerous beautiful daughters of Major General Stanley and quickly falls in love at first sight with the eldest daughter, Mabel. However, due to perhaps the most famous paradox in theater, Frederic discovers through a hilarious technicality that he is still apprenticed to the pirates and will now have to join them in an attack on Major General Stanley and his beloved Mabel!

Katie Davis, Frankie Thams, and the female ensemble. Photo by C. King Photography.
Katie Davis, Frankie Thams, and the female ensemble. Photo by C. King Photography.

At the moral heart of the operetta, Frankie Thams is adorably earnest and naive as pirate apprentice Frederic. Thams had a gorgeous soaring tenor voice with some effortlessly sustained higher notes and added a little contemporary flavor to the traditional Gilbert and Sullivan sound.

Katie Davis as Mabel is both sweet and sassy as the precocious eldest daughter. Her fluid coloratura was clear and agile and it was a nice addition that the production staff chose to include “Sorry Her Lot Who Loves Too Well”, from Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore as another solo to highlight Davis’ abilities.

True to character, Russell Rinker as the Pirate King is a royal ham and completely steals the show. His improvisations and character quips were hysterical and Rinker could more than hold his own while interacting with any other character in the show.

Taking a break from Associate Managing Director duties at SSMT, Elizabeth Albert steps into the spotlight as Ruth, Frederic’s older nursemaid. Albert is delightfully chipper and very warm and maternal. Her light, bright mezzo-soprano was a refreshing change from the typical deep contralto singers who normally perform the role of Ruth.

The standout of the entire production, a difficult feat to master in this case, is Matthew R. Wilson as the Major General. From his delightfully eccentric personality to his brilliant off-the-cuff improvisations to some delightfully over-the-top entrances and exits, if you don’t at least chuckle at some of Wilson’s hilarious antics, especially during his famous patter number “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”…… you may need to check your pulse and make sure you’re still with us.

Matthew R. Wilson and the Ensemble. Phot by C. King Photography.
Matthew R. Wilson and the Ensemble. Phot by C. King Photography.

Dan Morton earns an equal amount of laughs as the Police Sergeant. His spry, limber movements and nerdy, eccentric character created a hysterical combination and Morton was always at ease leading his band of befuddled policemen into well controlled onstage chaos.

Sarah Summerwell was wonderfully brassy and flirtatious as sensual sister, Edith. Madelyn Pyles was adorably quirky as Kate and Josh Walker provided a hysterically dim-witted pirate assistant, Samuel, complete with the obvious Captain Jack Sparrow dreadlocks.

Another interesting choice was the casting for Major General Stanley’s daughters. In typical productions, the females are all around an identical age, but in the SSMT production of The Pirates of Penzance, the daughters are all clearly various ages. From a small, innocent pre-teen girl to a worldly older sister, Emma Gwin, Andrea Kaniecki, Ashley Knaack, Jordan McCaskill, Dorian McCorey, Ella Schnoor, Miranda Schnoor, Adia J. Seckel, and Meg Stefanowicz all make the daughters individual and clearly contrasted characters.

The ensemble, featuring Michael Bombardier, Alex Boyd, Christopher Castanho, Peyton Chance, Michael Dikegoros, Chris Godshall, Thomas Golding, Dan Morton, Michael Piepoli, Christopher Prasse, and Trevor Schmidt, are all very energetic and let humorously individual personalities shine through their pirates and policeman characters.

As with their production of Sweeney Todd earlier this summer, the SSMT production staff and Blaustein made some extremely inventive choices to bring a modern twist to this classic operetta. Modern pop culture improvisational references are thrown in and imaginative staging makes the production freshly exciting, especially when performers make some (occasionally unexpected) entrances and exits through the auditorium.

Choreographer Trey Mitchell also deserves praise for thinking outside of the box….. or off of the ship, in this instance. The Pirates of Penzance is not known as a particularly “dance-heavy” show, and Mitchell takes the opportunity to have every cast member dancing at some point. Full company numbers are filled with quick, precise movements to match the patter singing and the police officers especially get to dance some challenging routines while showing off impressive acrobatic skills.

Costumes, designed by Cheryl Yancey, are beautifully detailed with simplistic color organization of bright primary hues for the pirates, white for the daughters and navy for the policemen.

Michael “Jonz” Jones’ set is scrumptious and features a working pirate ship (smoothly powered by cast members), a decorated platform at the rear of the stage to provide some interesting visuals and layer upon layer of stones and steps for the pirates and daughters to prance on.

Lighting by William Pierson is lovely while ranging from bold spotlights to sweet, simple tones for the love scenes.

For a wonderfully witty and modern fresh take on a classic operetta, featuring some outstanding character work, be sure to catch The Pirates of Penzance at SSMT before it sails away!

Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

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The Pirates of Penzance plays through July 24, 2016, at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre performing at the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre on the campus of Shenandoah University – 620 Millwood Avenue in Winchester, VA. For tickets, call (540) 665-4569, or purchase them online.

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