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BWW Reviews: Hilarious Old Jewel, Great New Setting PIRATES OF PENZANCE at Atlas

Baltimore theatergoers may be pardoned for not being familiar – yet – with the Atlas District in North East Washington, but this emerging arts-and-entertainment area, focused on about four blocks of H Street, is well worth getting to know.  The core is the Atlas Performing Arts Center, an Art Deco movie house that was impeccably redeveloped in 2006 after 30 years as a derelict.  And surely there could hardly be a better way of making the Atlas' acquaintance than seeing the Washington Savoyards' revival of the 1879 Gilbert and Sullivan hit, The Pirates of Penzance playing there now.

A good production of this operetta is pretty much guaranteed to leave you grinning most of the time, except when you're actually laughing.  And the Savoyards have mounted an excellent production.  The staging is bold and fresh; the singing is fine; the costumes are outstanding, and the orchestra is flawless.  Mounted that way, Gilbert and Sullivan's juggernaut rolls on through.

The heart of the operetta's appeal is the sublime silliness of its premises: pirates from the era of sail plundering Victorian steamships and sheltering in a Cornish seaside resort; pirates with indentured apprentices; pirates with a sense of punctilio that forbids them to attack orphans or resist any constable who invokes the Queen's name; pirates who are members of the House of Lords "gone wrong," not to mention a major general with eleven daughters who all seem to be the same age.  And the silliest thing of all is the sense of duty afflicting the young hero, Frederic, who feels bound to honor until he is 84 years of age the terms of an indenture intended to bind him only until age 21, because of an error in the wording.  If you start from premises like these, anything can happen, and in this show it pretty much does, with constant reversals of fortune and allegiance.

Gilbert and Sullivan shows are not like Burt Bacharach songs (which usually don't work very well if you take them out of their original orchestrations); rather they admit and by tradition usually receive liberties in most productions – bringing political jokes up to date, incorporating inventive bits of stage business, and, in this production, doing a lot of Broadway-izing of the dance numbers.  The chorus of daughters, ever so winsome in their beautifully-realized Victorian frocks (a tip of the hat to Costume Designer Eleanor Dicks), suddenly engage in song-and-dance routines that might reasonably have the audience thinking of Oklahoma or even A Chorus Line.  The updating, presumably thanks to the team of Director Carrie Klewin, Restaging Director Guillaume Tournaire, and Choreographer Pauline S. Grossman, is just a delight.

My criticisms are few.  The most important singing voice, of course, is the one that sings the ingenue Mabel.  Without miking on any of the cast that I could perceive, I sometimes could barely hear Stacey Mastrian this production's Mabel, over the orchestra, but this problem was only intermittent.  At other times, including crucially her big coloratura number POOR WAND'RING ONE!, she was fully audible and in perfect control.  Scott Kenison's Major General Stanley, he of the immortal patter song I AM THE VERY MODEL OF A MODERN MAJOR-GENERAL, seemed a bit subdued at times.  With patter it's hard to hit every mark squarely, and sometimes Kenison wobbled just a little.  On the other hand, it would be hard to find a better Pirate King than Adam Juran, who I thought borrowed quite successfully bits of Johnny Depp's schtick from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, while avoiding the sexual ambiguity and the lack of menace.  And Jean Cantrell as the no-longer-young-enough-to-be-the-love-interest-but-defying-it Ruth, and Benjamin Lurye, as Frederic, the young hero who struggles being what the subtitle calls The Slave of Duty, were just fine.

I was pleased to see a number of kids in the audience.  Gilbert and Sullivan still have everything most kids need to interest them in the theater, and little in the way of inappropriately adult material.  I heartily recommend that if you have some of your own you bring them, and if you don't, you should certainly bring yourself.  Be sure to make time when you do to check out the Atlas District, too.  I think you'll be back; I know I shall.

The Pirates of Penzance, Music by Arthur Sullivan, Libretto by William S. Gilbert.  The Washington Savoyards at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002.  Thursdays through Sundays, through November 7.  Matinees Saturdays and Sundays.  Tickets $10-$45.  202.399.7993 ext 2. .  Cartoonish, comic violence; appropriate for children.

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