Pirates!: I Have A Feeling We're Not In Penzance Anymore
What's the difference between an operetta and a musical comedy? One way to find out is to spend a raucously fun pair of hours at The Paper Mill enjoying Pirates! (or Gilbert and Sullivan plunder'd), a fast and rowdy adaptation of the English duo's irreplaceable The Pirates Of Penzance conceived by Nell Benjamin (additional book and lyrics), Gordon Greenberg (director) and John McDaniel (music supervision, new arrangements and orchestrations).
Those who may cry heresy at changing one note or altering one word of this G&S classic, take heart. This does not come off like some Philistine's attempt to improve or update a fine old antique that remains in perfectly good working order. No, think of Pirates! as a translation of sorts. Instead of using a book, a play or a film as source material, the creators have taken a beloved work by two masters of comic operetta and have respectfully translated it into a boisterous American musical comedy. High satire is replaced by low humor, artful soprano trills are ditched in favor of hearty mezzo belts, references to British gentility are unceremoniously tossed into the briny foam as the language of the libretto is Americanized and new orchestrations give the piece a more freewheeling Broadway sound. Slap on a new title, have your second female lead straddle a phallic symbol that blasts confetti at the audience, and you've got a welcome variation on a classic.
I'm told this version borrows quite a bit from the movie Pirates Of The Caribbean, which, as my dear regular readers might guess, I haven't seen. Although the time has been moved to the early 1700's and the locale "Penzance" is never uttered, the plot remains the story of Frederic (a sweet, adorable and slightly dumb Barrett Foa), a duty-driven lad who accidentally becomes apprenticed to a Pirate King (Andrew Varela in snarling, scenery-chewing heaven) because of a mix-up by his hard-of-hearing nursemaid Ruth (a grandly lusty Liz McCartney). Though a loyal pirate because he was honor-bound to obey, at the end of his apprenticeship Frederic vows to conquer his former shipmates in order to make up for his years of devilish deeds. But first, everyone has to fall in love and get married.
The biggest tweaking of the story comes from Benjamin's explanation that the pirates have chosen their dark profession only because they've been cursed with the inability to develop "land legs," causing them to become land-sick when on shore for too long a time. The only way to break the curse is to marry a virgin, thus giving the boys a new motivation for wanting to kidnap and wed the daughters of Major-General Stanley (a loveable Ed Dixon, who commands laughter in the only genuinely D'Oyly Carte-ish performance of the night).
The women get a better go of it in this version. References to Ruth being old and plain looking are jettisoned. Now she's just a good time gal who is lovin' her bawdy life. No daughter is accused of having a "homely face and bad complexion," and although there is a bit of ditziness circulating among the younger Stanleys, they are not completely vapid. Mabel, in fact, played with spirited comic glee by Farah Alvin is a brainiac in a pith helmet.
The major operetta to musical comedy conversion comes from the cutting and pasting of the music and lyrics into a score that emphasizes the plot and character driving sensibility of the theatre world over the vocal showcasing of the classical world. Songs that linger on moments without doing much for the story ("Sighing Softly To The River") or that are merely beautiful flourishes wrapped around a repetitive lyric ("Oh, Here Is Love") are perfectly acceptable in operetta, but they are eliminated here. Much of the recitative is also axed and when Penzance doesn't quite supply what's needed the G&S catalogue is raided for some choice booty. Even "I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General," impeccably pounced upon by Dixon, contains new character-specific segments explaining what the devil he's doing in the Caribbean and his attitude toward the inhabitants he encounters.
A few melodies are seasoned with island rhythms, especially those sung by the Jamaican-style Sergeant of Police. At the performance I attended understudy Eric LaJuan Summers was a blast filling in for Gerry McIntyre.
Under music director Shawn Gough, who conducts the on-stage 14 piece orchestra, the singing is just spectacular throughout this production, from the robust bellows of Dixon to the roaring vocals of Varela and McCartney and a full company that soars with the celebrated "Hail Poetry!" Your ears are in for a treat with this one.
With Greenberg's breakneck staging, Warren Caryle's hearty choreography and clever and colorful design work by Rob Bissinger (set), David C. Woolard (costumes) and Jeff Croiter (lights) added to the mix, Pirates! turns the Paper Mill stage into a treasure island.