Pirates of Penzance Review – Commitment to Silliness at 100%, Captain!

Major-General Stanley (James Harms) with the pirates

It’s easy to imagine the first full-cast Pirates readthrough of this year’s Musical Theater Works production. An earnest gathering of talented singers and singing actors sit with their scores and water bottles, ready to roll on a fun but often vocally challenging score, a bevy of English accents on the tips of their warmed-up tongues. And before any single performer can finish any single line, Stage Director Rudy Hogenmiller interjects with a gently shouted, “Sillier!” Soon pearls of vocal beauty give way to coarse vowel twists of hilarity. “Sillier!” he encourages. The entire chorus of policemen prat-fall off their chairs. Hogenmiller pulls a sign out from behind his back, as out of a cartoon. It reads, “SILLIER!” Conductor Linda Madonia shouts, “They canna take it, Captain!” Hogenmiller reassures her that they most certainly can. “Silliness to one hundred percent, Maestro Madonia!”

The police, led by the nameless but hilarious Sergeant (PJ Wilborn)

Yes, yes, this didn’t actually happen, but after enjoying their opening night performance of Pirates of Penzance, it’s easy to imagine any number of scenarios under which the excellent cast might have been encouraged to commit to Peak Silly. Let’s be frank; despite its pedigree as legitimate operetta, Pirates is without question the silliest, most transparent and slapstick of Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaborations. Funnier than Pinafore, less ethnically problematic than Mikado or Gondoliers, less insightful in its mockery of the aristocracy than Iolanthe, and less romantically authentic than even Patience or -eep- Ruddigore, Pirates has that golden ratio of content: beautiful tunes, a deeply and consistently funny libretto, completely inauthentic characters and a supremely absurd plot that cannot be rendered earnest by even the most talented artistic leadership. The truest path to success in presenting Pirates is to give in to the burlesque quality of the thing and make it pure rollicking fun. MTW succeeded.

Mabel (Cecilia Iole) and Frederic (Ben Barker) woo and win

The lovely vocal performances don’t distract from the comedy, but complement it ably. Ben Barker’s Frederic is more than your garden variety pretty, innocent tenor; in this production he is almost Elvis-like in his self-awareness and icky intent to find and woo and win a girl prettier than the middle-aged nursemaid with whom he’d been saddled. Similarly, Cecilia Iole’s Mabel is a rarity of this genre – a genuinely comedic take on a role intended to satirize operatic soprani. All the evidence is there: precious little dialogue, the ridiculous willingness to commit completely to a cute stranger, and the utterly unhinged coloratura of Poor Wan’dring One. Iole takes her Mabel to 11 without sacrificing her pretty tone, and the production is a better comedy for it. Would that more Mabels (and Yum Yums and Josephines and Phyllises, and…) get out of their own way and have as much fun as the rest of their casts.

Frederic (Ben Barker), Pirate King (Larry Adams) and Ruth (Nancy Hays) plot their stupid, stupid revenge

Larry Adams swaggers, gesticulates a bit too assertively with his blade and sings the hell out of the Pirate King. In a shimmery mauve coat and dashing beard, he brings this quintessential G&S role to life without overshadowing his peers (you should pardon the expression, OMG SPOILER). He is the rock-solid heart of the pirate crew and maintains just the right comedic tone to keep the whole thing light and frothy.

Major-General Stanley (James Harms) and his bevy of beautiful daughters

Pattering the most famous song of the show – possibly of all Gilbert and Sullivan’s songs – is the Very Model of a Modern Major-General, James Harms. His is the classic portrayal; physical, nimble, vulnerable and definitively silly. He almost makes you believe he feels remorse for having lied about being an orphan – an act of treachery so unthinkable that the pirates vow to assassinate him for the offense. Just go with the ridonk here.

Frederic (Ben Barker) and Mabel (Cecilia Iole) are unexpectedly upstaged by the fabulous women’s chorus

It would be a disservice to overlook the contributions of the three fabulous choruses here as well. Terrific singing accompanied genuinely amusing acting and stage movement. The utterly goofy policemen high-stepped and mugged for maximum laughs, while the enchanting women’s chorus engaged in gorgeous vocals and funny moving friezes that ensure a perfect photo at any given moment.

Two chorus leads of note are pirate Samuel (the divinely piratey Cary Lovett) and sister Edith (Caitlyn Glennon) who sing the heck out of their roles and anchor the choruses with their commitment to each group’s brand of silliness.

The costumes, likewise, are spot-on, featuring a gorgeous array of fabrics and authentic details that spring to colorful life in front of uncomplicated sets that allow the action to take center stage.

From the first praise of pirate sherry to the end of the rollicking curtain calls, this production is a corker and it kicks off their 2018 season with a bang. Tickets are still available for the remainder of the run, which goes through Saturday, June 17 at Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium in Evanston. You can purchase tickets for Pirates and all their 2018 productions at the Musical Theater Works website or by calling (847) 920-5360.

Photographs by Brett Beiner

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