Set Sail for Huntington Theatre's "Pirates!"
Pirates! (or Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder'd)
Book and lyrics by William S. Gilbert
Music by Arthur S. Sullivan
Choreography by Denis Jones
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Music Direction, F. Wade Russo; Scenic Design, Rob Bissinger; Costume Design, David C. Woolard; Lighting Design, Jeff Croiter; Sound Design, Drew Levy & Tony Smolenski IV; Orchestrations, Dan DeLange; Fight Direction, Michael Rossmy; Production Stage Manager, Gail P. Luna; Stage Manager, Carola Morrone
CAST (in order of appearance): Pirate King, Steve Kazee; Samuel, Caesar Samayoa; Frederic, Anderson Davis; Ruth, Cady Huffman; Kate, Kristen Sergeant; Edith, Julia Osborne; Jane, Sarah Ziegler; Isabel, Erica Spyres; Pippa, Brittney A. Morello; Cornelia, Krista Buccellato; Sergeant, Mel Johnson, Jr.; Mabel, Farah Alvin; Major-General, Ed Dixon; Pirates - Wes Hart, Sam Kiernan, Douglas Lyons, Chris Messina (Dance Captain), Joel Perez, Michael Rossmy, Dave Schoonover, Christopher Sergeeff, Victor J. Wiseheart; Policemen - Sam Kiernan, Douglas Lyons, Chris Messina, Christopher Sergeeff
Performances through June 14 at The Huntington Theatre Company
Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org
Like the fireworks finale on the Esplanade on the Fourth of July, the Huntington Theatre Company concludes the season with a big blast of a production that has hit written all over it. Pirates! (or Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder'd) combines energetic dancing, splendid voices, daring swordplay, and eye-popping costumes with a witty, tongue-in-cheek revision of The Pirates of Penzance that is a mirthful mix of Johnny Depp with classic operetta. Broadway veterans fill the principal roles, supported by a talented ensemble of local and national performers.
Director Gordon Greenberg and his collaborators Nell Benjamin and John McDaniel have adapted the original Victorian era story by changing the locale to the Caribbean and giving the Pirate King a Pirates of the Caribbean-style swagger and flair. As in the original Gilbert and Sullivan, Pirates! tells the tale of the King and his motley crew, their dutiful apprentice Frederic who is about to end his servitude, and the latter's nursemaid Ruth who longs to be his (or someone's) wife. The entertaining twist introduced by the co-conceivers is the "pirate curse" - to remain a pirate forever and become violently ill when spending extended periods of time on land. As the curse can only be undone by marrying a virgin bride, Frederic and his mates seek to capture the daughters of Major-General Stanley, until he pleads that he, an orphan, would be left alone in the world. Being orphans themselves, the pirates have a soft spot for orphans and return to sea leaving only Frederic ashore with his beloved Mabel, the smart daughter. Now that he is a free man, Frederic believes it is his duty to exterminate the pirates and gathers a police force to battle them. On the eve of the fight, Ruth and the King visit Frederic to inform him that his servitude is not complete due to a technicality and he is honor-bound to return to their side. The police regiment is outclassed and outnumbered by The Buccaneers, but the women come to the rescue by agreeing to marry the pirates. The curse is cast off and they all live happily ever after.
That is an abridgement of the plot, but the details of the narrative seem secondary to its lighthearted tone, deadpan delivery, and the sometimes dry, sometimes over-the-top dialogue and lyrics. Benjamin not only maintains the bones of Gilbert's libretto with the social and political satire of its time, but contemporizes it with new references that skewer our present day government and mores. Sullivan's score is amazingly well-suited for transformation to musical comedy and the quality and range of the voices in this 22-member cast is astounding. In particular, Ed Dixon stops the show with his precise rendition of "A Modern Major-General," followed by his sympathy-seeking, doleful "An Orphan Boy." Anderson Davis infuses Frederic with boyish earnestness and blends beautifully in his duets with Farah Alvin (Mabel) whose understated comedic skills are surpassed only by her crystalline vocals.
Steve Kazee (110 in the Shade, Spamalot) and Cady Huffman (Tony Award winner for The Producers) are acting/singing/dancing triple threats, but stand out for their portrayals of the Pirate King and Ruth. Kazee is the focal point and basks in the attention, strutting about with a mix of arrogance and vulnerability. He is at his charismatic best when he ventures into the orchestra to flirt one-on-one with an audience member, eventually charming her out of her string of pearls while keeping her male companion at bay. Huffman is his match as the sexy, addled, and far from pure Wendy (part mother, part wife) to this gang of Lost Boys. Caesar Samayoa adds a comic kick as Samuel, the King's right hand man, and Mel Johnson, Jr. epitomizes the laid back islander with an infectious joie de vivre.
Denis Jones has created athletic choreography for the pirates, reminiscent of the work of Michael Kidd in the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, rife with stomping, leaping, and tumbling. Greenberg's solid direction maintains a high energy level and moves the activity all around the stage, even sending the daughters into the audience in search of Mabel. Under the direction of F. Wade Russo, the seven-piece orchestra consisting of keyboards, bass, percussion, and woodwinds, produces a full and vibrant sound. The Huntington adds to its reputation for excellent production values with evocative costumes, an artful set, booming cannon sounds, and bright lights to successfully capture the images of the pirate lifestyle.
Gilbert and Sullivan premiered The Pirates of Penzance in New York City on New Year's Eve of 1879. It is a remarkable measure of their talent and the skills of Greenberg and company that, 130 years later, with a modicum of cutting and pasting, this version of their original work retains its silliness, outrageousness, and ability to connect with its audience. With pirates of another kind being so much in the news these days, it's lucky for us that this crew is only after one thing - unadulterated fun - and they're right on course.
Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson