Pirates! (Or, Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d)
A very funny thing happened to The Pirates of Penzanze on its way to the 21st century. It morphed into Pirates!, a saucy take on the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that has been delighting audiences at the Huntington for the past month (and audiences in Connecticut and New Jersey before that). Some have found this undertaking, which is subtitled Or, Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder'd, a cheap attempt at updating the operetta to our considerably coarser times. Whatever. What its critics miss is that the show, despite its modern trimmings, stays fairly close to the original and no more coarsens the original than the highly touted 1980 New York Shakespeare Festival production.
Is it so bad for its adapters - Gordon Greenberg, Nell Benjamin and John McDaniel- to aim for something popular? Judging from the rapturous response from the audience they are onto something - a show that both captures the irreverent spirit of the original as it merrily gives it a contemporary spin.
Gilbert and Sullivan were masters at this sort of popular art -- satiric operettas that mocked the social and political trends of their times, England at the height of Queen Victoria's reign. So would they be surprised to see their Pirate King be transformed into a thinly veiled caricature of Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean? Franchise? It's doubtful. And it's easy to surmise the success of those Johnny Depp-helmed films inspired this musical version, and it's a shrewd choice -- why write something based on those films when Gilbert and Sullivan have already created such a simpatico work to, as they say, plunder?
Nor would G&S object to the broad performances and the freewheeling style that director Gordon Greenberg brings to the production. Having seen one of the last tours of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company (the company that retained the G&S well into the 20th century), it is fair to say the buoyantly comic style of this production wasn't so far removed from the broad, cartoonish style that that so distinguished that company in their heyday. The difference, of course, is the ironic layer that is found in Pirates!, which plays with the anachronistic style of operetta, but, fortunately, doesn't extend to the musical numbers, which treat Sullivan's melodies and (with some reworking) Gilbert's words with respect. About the only thing that purists can truly object to is the reworking of Ruth, the nursemaid to Frederick, from a plain spinster to a randy wench; but isn't the operetta's running joke that Ruth is unattractive more sexist than this ingenious solution? It certainly gives Cady Huffman much to play off of, as well as make her the comic foil to Steve Kazee's Pirate King.
From the start - when Kazee strides across the orchestra pit to lead the overture - he plays the Pirate King with bravura style. Early on he has some ribald fun with some audiences members, which sets the tone for the fun to follow. What he does so effectively is allude to Depp's famous characterization without compromising his own comic turn on the swashbuckling stereotype. His is a wonderfully over-the-top performance - sexy, goofy and well sung. As said, Huffman is every bit his match, commanding the stage with her sexy presence and deft comic style. As the young lovers Anderson Davis plays the guileless Frederic with goofy gullibility, while Farah Alvin feminist spin on Mabel is deftly realized; and vocally the pair are well suited. Musically the production, with Music supervision and arrangements by John McDaniel and the musical direction of F. Wade Russo, is first-rate.)
In the showy role of the Major-General, Ed Dixon is letter-perfect, delivering not one, but two (the second a clever interpolation from Iolanthe) with perfect diction and delicious comic skill. The supporting roles, from a chorus of blonde airheads to the less-than-threatening pirates, are played with spirited good humor. While some gags don't work, there are plenty that do, and, anyway, Greenberg's breathneck staging never lingers on anything too long. Denis Jones's choreography is well integrated and Broadway savvy, though there were times the stage felt too crowded. The production values are up to the Huntington's usual high standard - this is a production that could easily move to a Broadway house at a moment's notice where it would, in all likelihood, charm audiences as it has in Boston this past month. (It closes this Sunday.)
So as a farewell cheer: Hail to these Pirates! May they continue to plunder theaters in the future.
Through June 14 @ the Huntington Theatre Company, BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Mass. For further information visit the Huntington Theatre Company's website.