BWW Review: THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE at Mesa Encore Theatre
Mesa Encore Theatre's current production of Gilbert and Sullivan's THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE pushes the already campy comic opera to "Family Guy" and "The Naked Gun" level outrageousness. And it works. The fun onstage is clear and contagious. The audience seemed unsure what they were watching at first but once the boisterous Avery Jones' started "I Am a Pirate King!", everyone was onboard for this trip through one of the building blocks of the American Broadway Musical.
My first experience with this show was a cineplex matinee of "The Pirate Movie" in the summer of 1982. Kristy McNichol played a bookish, unpopular girl who sustains a head injury and dreams the plot of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, also starring Ted Hamilton as the Pirate King. It cut most of Gilbert and Sullivan's score and added cringe worthy original pop songs (one of them winning a "Golden Raspberry" for Worst song.) In all, it was nominated for eight "Razzies" at the 3rd annual Golden Raspberry Awards with three wins. Yet, to me, the actual songs from THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE stood out as... well, not bad. Even in "The Pirate Movie" these songs land comically.
My second encounter was the filmed version of Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park starring Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt. It is a gem that redefined how to produce Gilbert and Sullivan's canon permanently. Sometime later I checked out a CD from the public library of an early UK production. Excited to hear a new cast, I was sorely disappointed to find that this version was practically a straight-played, traditional light opera. Where was the camp? Where was the outright mocking of the genre? After some reflection I realized that a late 19th century audience must've thought this (to me, boring) version was vastly silly. The absurdity increases generationally ultimately leading to performances like Kevin Kline as The Pirate King and George Rose as the Major-General that cemented the new level of camp associated with the piece.
Mr. Chorley has accepted the challenge of going crazier still. He includes things like incredibly botched scene changes, off-period costumes, and breaking the fourth-wall to speak with conductor/music director Michael Snyder about his tempo choices. It is a similar aesthetic to THE PLAY THAT WENT WRONG and it is a welcome take on an oft-produced musical.
The romantic leads, Haley McHardy as Mabel and Aaron Jones as Frederick, perform earnestly and with Dudley Do-Right style on-purpose over-acting (the core of camp). They are appropriately sincere when called for and both gifted singers. Jeffrey J. Davey is delightful as the Major-General. Although his performance includes a common misplay of the patter song "Modern Major-General". A great patter song doesn't mean singing as fast as you possibly can. It means singing as fast as you possibly can, while still being understood. Filled with words like "acrostics" and "elegiacs", and references like "Caracacus" and "Heliogabalus", it's already hard to follow. Being fast and understood is way more impressive than warp-speed skatting. Mr. Snyder, otherwise, runs a very tight ship in the orchestra, an essential constant no matter how campy the rest of the show gets.
The ultimate success of this production comes down to the fun the cast is having. It's all over the stage. The ensemble, the leads, even the curtain speech speaker are having a great time and taking the audience along for the ride.