Review: ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ by The Hypocrites at Olney Theatre Center

Once upon a time, Gilbert and Sullivan staging was – there is no other word for it – stodgy. The D’Oyly Carte opera company dominated G&S performance from the late 19th century until its 1982 death from a combination of tired productions and Thatcher-era cuts in arts funding. (On its last tours to the DC area, in the late 1970s, D’Oyly Carte’s budgets had become so strained that cast members were put up in the homes of local community theater group members rather than at hotels). That venerable company preserved the shows in the form designed by W.S. Gilbert himself but acted as a barrier to innovation.

Robert McLean (Pirate King) and Matt Kahler (Major General) in The Hypocrites' THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE. (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva, courtesy of American Repertory Theatre)
Robert McLean (Pirate King) and Matt Kahler (Major General) in The Hypocrites’ THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE. (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva, courtesy of American Repertory Theatre).

In the case of The Pirates of Penzance, Joseph Papp’s 1980 Central Park production broke the mold, centering the show around Kevin Kline’s swashbuckling Pirate King and giving the score a distinctly pop vibe (Linda Ronstadt was a surprisingly good Mabel). In the 30+ years since, the Papp approach itself became a somewhat encrusted performance tradition. No worries about anything encrusted or traditional in the Chicago-based Hypocrites’ non-stop, high-energy, frenetic, immersive, beach party take on Pirates now playing at the Olney Theatre Center, reprising a successful 2016 summer run there.

As the audience enters the house, they are greeted by more beach balls than ever graced the outfield bleachers at Dodger Stadium. The cast, in vaguely ’70s shorts and other beach-casual attire, are strumming guitars and singing pop music of a sort Gilbert and Sullivan would never have imagined, ending with a rousing version of “The Sloop John B.”  During the pre-show, cast members begin their evening-long interaction with the audience – there is no fourth wall in sight – particularly those audience members who occupy the “promenade,” a portion of the playing area that they and the performers share. The actors shepherd audience members from one position to another as the action demands, to the audience’s evident delight. At other times, cast members sit in the rows of seats around the playing area, interacting with audience members, seemingly informally, but actually in positions that appear precisely determined to pick up the next light cue. Nothing provides the appearance of spontaneity in theater like careful planning and thorough rehearsal, and this Pirates shows the fruits of both.

As adapted from the original G&S score and libretto by Sean Graney (who also directed) and Kevin O’Donnell, this Pirates clocks in at 80 minutes. The streamlining eliminates two supporting characters – Samuel (the Pirate King’s lieutenant) and the Sergeant of Police – as well as all or parts of several musical numbers, including all of the iconic “A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy One” and the second half of “Poor Wandering One,” Mabel’s coloratura showpiece. While these losses will be felt by people familiar with the show, and the chaotic second act finale could confuse anyone, there are also gains that should please even the most ardent Savoyard. “Sighing Softly to the River,” often a throwaway number, turns into a gorgeous baritone/tenor duet between the Major General (Matt Kahler) and the Pirate King (Shawn Pfautsch). The first act’s “Hail Poetry” chorale is sung in a lovely piano by the ensemble (punctuated by humorously exaggerated final consonants) and then – unlike in the original version of the show – given a full-throated reprise as the capstone of the second act finale.

This is a production that never stops moving; the cast’s energy is palpable. Every line, sometimes every note, seems to have its own specific movement. If there is a signature move in the show, it is a leg lift followed by a foot stomp, above all in the repetition of the word “duty” in act two. Cast members also very capably provide their own musical accompaniment (quite the trend in musical theater nowadays, most famously beginning with the 2005 John Doyle production of Sweeney Todd), predominately on guitars but also on banjo, violin, accordion, flute, and saw.

In many traditional G&S productions, the patter song character is done by a comic actor who can sing a bit. In this production, Kahler, as Major General Stanley, has the strongest voice in the show. His “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” is a model of how to perform the song. Mario Aivazian displays a supple tenor voice as Freddy, though his portion of “Ah Leave Me Not to Pine,” the most emotionally touching moment of any Pirates, is unfortunately truncated.

Dana Saleh Omar does double duty as Ruth and Mabel, no mean feat given the 30-year age difference between the characters and the significantly different vocal demands made upon them. She handles the sometimes quick transitions with aplomb; her best vocal moment is in “A Paradox,” a second act trio she shares with Aivazian and Pfautsch. In both vocal and acting terms, the small groups of pirates (Stephen Romero Schaeffer, Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo, and Lauren Vogel) and daughters (Leslie Ann Sheppard, Tina Munoz Pandya, and Aja Wiltshire) fill in admirably for the much larger ensembles that populate traditional productions.

Matt Kahler (Major General) and the cast of The Hypocrites' THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE at Olney Theatre Center (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva, courtesy of American Repertory Theatre).
Matt Kahler (Major General) and the cast of The Hypocrites’ THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE at Olney Theatre Center (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva, courtesy of American Repertory Theatre).

Few things are as quintessentially British as G&S but, despite the use of British accents (done well, but deployed inconsistently) and the brandishing of a Union Jack and photo of Queen Victoria near the end, there is little that feels British about the production. But it’s all about the party, and ultimately this really doesn’t matter. (Speaking of Ruddigore, there is a cute in-joke when the Pirate King misstates Freddy’s name as “Roderick.”)

Tom Burch’s set is a very practical, flexible hoot, including two kiddie pools, a larger, low platform for the main playing area, and a smaller upstage platform. Various benches, chairs, and other items serve actors and audience members well in the “promenade” area, and there was some decent foot traffic attending the working tiki bar off state left. Heather Gilbert’s lighting design, featuring tiki torch lights around the main stage platform, blue and white garlands hanging from the ceiling, and well-focused specials, ably complements the proceedings.

There is high-quality professional work sometimes hiding in plain sight in the offhand, informal world of The Hypocrites’ Pirates. What is obvious from start to finish is that this production is just sheer fun, as audience-friendly an evening as one can imagine.

Running Time: 80 minutes, preceded by a 30-minute pre-show.

The Pirates of Penzance, presented by The Hypocrites, plays through August 17, 2018, at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney MD.  For tickets, call the box office at 301-924-3400, or go online.