BWW Review: The Hypocrites Turn Theatre into a Party for Pasadena Playhouse's PIRATES OF PENZANCE
Say what you will, The Hypocrites have found a way to transform traditional theatre into a form of entertainment that appeals to folks who'd rather go to a party than sit in a theater. And they've done it using Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE. No joke.
Gilbert & Sullivan were the satirists of their day, parodying everything from politics to grand opera (the pop music of the Victorian era) so it isn't surprising that the Chicago-based company would choose to reinvent their comic operas to fit the taste of current audiences. (They've also given the Hypocrite treatment to THE MIKADO and H.M.S. PINAFORE.) From the production design to the adaptation and style of the performance, their novel approach is a stimulating example of how to deconstruct a classic and put it back together again in a fresh, fun, and thoroughly engaging manner.
Trimmed down to a tidy 80 minutes (plus a one minute intermission) the ensemble tells its pirate story of love and adventure amid a beach party setting. Tiki torches and overhead strands of lights cast an inviting glow, a central winding boardwalk is shared by actors and audience, and an island bar sells drinks throughout the show.
Most of the audience is seated "in the water" on colorful folding chairs atop risers painted Caribbean blue, proving that scenic designer Tom Burch knows how to be funny too. A fair number of general admission attendees experience the show promenade style, sitting or standing around the boardwalk's central playing area. They're encouraged to get up and move around, and the actors have a system in place to indicate when they are about to move into a space occupied by an audience member. It's great fun whether you're part of the boardwalk milieu or watching it from the risers and if you see the production multiple times, you'll never get the exact same show twice. (Note: don't get general admission tickets if you're not prepared to change seats frequently and interact with the cast.)
The fun begins the moment you round the corner to the stage where Burch has built a new floor extending out over the Playhouse's theatre seats. It's somewhat similar to the way Stephen Dobay reconfigured The Broad Stage for The Hypocrites' production of OUR TOWN starring Helen Hunt in 2012 (which was terrific) but much more colorful.
The good-natured cast, directed by the company's artistic director, Sean Graney, immediately indoctrinates you into the fun-loving atmosphere. They are a welcoming bunch, accompanying themselves on instruments like guitar, ukulele, clarinet, violin, spoons, and even a musical saw. Graney finds plentiful opportunities for humor in his playful approach and, in one particularly sly scene, he also uses the instruments to add to a joke.
When Freddy (Doug Pawlik), a naïve but duty-bound pirate apprentice, meets Mabel (Dana Omar), a fetching young maid, the two fall instantly in love. The scene contains one of the show's most popular songs, "Poor wand'ring one" sung by Mabel, and accompanied by Mabel on banjo and Freddy on guitar. Eventually, their infatuation leads them off-stage, though the song continues. Upon their return, the flushed pair has swapped instruments, and presumably a whole lot more, during their giddy romantic tryst. It's a small but genius detail that merrily amplifies the subtext. Look for saucy touches like this throughout the show.
Adapted by Graney and his co-adaptor Kevin O'Donnell, the story stays true to the original but takes judicious liberties with its construct. We meet young Freddy on the day he believes he will be released from servitude to the pirates who took him in as a boy. The mix-up occurred when his nurse, Ruth, (also played by Omar) mistakenly apprenticed him to a group of pirates instead of pilots, as originally intended. What follows is a whimsical story of boy meets girl, pirates stealing daughters, police clashing with pirates, and a pardon in the name of Queen Victoria that grants a festive happy ending to all.
Pawlik is as fresh-faced as Omar is quirky. Matt Kahler gives a devilish spin to the buffoonery that is the Major-General and Shawn Pfatsch's Pirate King is a congenial bad guy who's really a pushover at heart. The absurd twists in the story provide hearty laughs, often prompted by choreographer Katie Spelman's amusing moves.
Though the cast is precise in action and intent, the new theatre configuration isn't always conducive to hearing every line. It's a shame to miss any of the humor in Arthur Sullivan's lyrics but when the party descends into a noisy free-for-all, it can't be helped. Musical richness also comes second to comic effect but in this setting it doesn't seem to matter. The gist of the story always comes through and the fun of the experience makes up for any artistic shortcomings. Go ready to jump into the silliness and you're guaranteed to have a blast.
Should you need assistance at any time during the performance, just look for one of two stage managers roaming around the edges of the boardwalk decked out as lifeguards. It's yet another comic touch, courtesy of costume designer Alison Siple, who gets the last meta-theatrical laugh.
Photo credit: Jenny Graham