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Theater Review: The Pirates of Penzance

There is an infectious merriment and a parade of extraordinary musical numbers in Michael Pulliam’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” which just opened at the Historic Iao Theater. In this revival of Gilbert & Sullivan’s 140-year old comic opera, a superb cast brings the classic to life and presents one knockout musical number after another.

Kiegan Otterson stars as Frederic, a pirate who falls in love with Mabel (played by Leighanna Locke), the daughter of the Major General (played by Dale Button). Meanwhile, The Pirate King (played by Gary Leavitt) and his merry band of buccaneers (played by Rueben Carrion, Dan Church, Jefferson Davis,  and Stephen Webb) are interested in ALL of the Major-General’s daughters (played by Chloe Chin, Bailey Miller, Stefani Peterson, Laura Vo and Jamie Wilcox). Frederic struggles with the realization that being born on February 29th means his romance will have to wait, as his stint with the Pirates of Penzance- you know what? Forget it. The plot is total nonsense.  More importantly, the music is thrilling and the cast and orchestra made my jaw drop many times over the course of the production.  The ensemble cast is flush with accomplished singers and committed, buoyant performers who are up to the challenging wordplay and vocal gymnastics within Gilbert & Sullivan’s score.

 Otterson gives a winning performance in the lead and adds some nice moments of physical humor. Locke’s vocal range is stunning, as her voice fills the theater and warms the heart. “Poor Wandering One” is a gorgeous number and she absolutely nails it. Marsi Smith is a hoot as Ruth, whose relationship with the pirates is dubious at best- Smith gets the show rolling with her great number, “When Fredric Was a Little Lad.”

Dale Button plays Mabel’s father, The Major General and it’s a brilliant performance. Button’s showstopper, “I Am a Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” one of the all-time show tune tongue-twisters and actor-testers, is harder to perform than it looks. I’ve never seen it done this well. Even while sporting a giant pair mutton chops (think geriatric Elvis), Button finds the heart and dignity of the character.

Leavitt is nuanced and funny as The Pirate King; he actually underplays the role, not hogging the spotlight, as other actors playing the part have been historically known to do in the past. It’s a fitting approach, as this is truly an ensemble piece, with the central characters presented in clusters: we’re presented with five pirates (originally), five of the Major General’s daughters and four policemen who enter the second act.

These multiple characters allow for the Rule of Four, in which four or more characters have a shared mindset but work best when together and form a single unit. All that to say how excellent the chorus of pirates, sisters and policemen are, all of whom find the right comic and musical rhythms for their characters.

The added moments of anachronistic humor are jarring and unnecessary. There’s nothing remotely hip about the material and injecting modern jokes simply took me out the show. However, these moments don’t hinder the production, which always course corrects itself whenever another musical number begins (which is often).

Pulliam’s direction is tight and focused, as the production moves briskly and every performer has moments to shine. Great set pieces by Caro Walker effectively dress the stage with mood and character (the second act features a striking chapel mock up). The costumes by Vicki and Jessi Nelson are equally impressive, accentuating the characteristics of each role. There’s also a pirate ship, a large prop both amusing and genuinely impressive- seeing it move brings to mind the craftsmanship of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” in the same theater a few years back.

 “The Pirates of Penzance” is hearty and goofy, with music that frequently induces chicken skin. Whether the cast is giving life to a number that’s jovial or somber, the voices reach to the top of the theater ceiling,  leaving audiences spellbound.

A final note: walking through the Historic Iao Theater lobby during the intermission, I came across a framed poster of a production from years ago- “H.M.S. Pinafore,” another Gilbert & Sullivan classic. Evidently, the playwrights have a legacy of their legendary work being recreated within the confines of this theater. Clearly, their musicals are in good hands.

The Pirates of Penzance plays at The Historic Iao Theater from March 1-17th. Tickets are available at mauionstage.com or by calling808-242-6969.

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