Wednesday, July 11, 2012

'Pirates:' Silly Smiles and Sea Froth

Mabel: Oh Frederic, can you not in the calm excellence of your wisdom reconcile it with your conscience to say something that will ease my father's sorrow?
Frederic: What?
Mabel: Can’t you cheer him up?
 By Dan Hagen
I had never seen a production of “The Pirates of Penzance” I really enjoyed until I grinned my way through the Little Theatre’s current show on the 4th of July.
Previous productions of this 133-year-old bit of sea froth had always seemed trivial and strained to me, the performers sweating to paper over the cracks in material they didn’t fully understand or inhabit. After all, this Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera, first staged in 1879, makes “Oklahoma” look like a recent Broadway hit, and it’s hard to perform to boot.
The element that was missing in those productions is supplied in this one, and I think it’s the sagacious direction and choreography of Kelly Shook applied to the powerful professional talents in the Little Theatre summer cast. The show is invested with bits of business — canny gestures, wry looks, funny dance moves — that keep the crowd laughing and engaged pretty much throughout.
The Little Theatre stage during dress rehearsal
For example, the simple act of watching his doting daughters wind a scarf around his throat during a song becomes hilarious when it’s performed by the dryly delightful John Reeger as the Major General. This Equity actor gives a perfectly assured performance, confident of the audience’s good cheer.
And who knew operetta singing could be so expressive and, well, bossy? Heroine Lindsay O’Neill uses her splashy, show-offy trills to ward off sisters and lure a lover in a flurry of flitting, flirting and posturing. Her performance is delicious.
It also helps that the actors clearly enunciate the lyrics, which are so rapid-fire and/or high-pitched that they can otherwise be tricky to understand.
Kudos to scenic designer Matthew J. Fick for his two-tiered, bamboo-brown set full of piratical ladders, palms, kegs of grog and boxes of booty marked with coats of arms.
As New York Times critic Anita Gates observed of a “Pirates” revival, “These people seem deliriously happy with their lot in life.”  She notes that the Pirate King sings the lines “It is a glorious thing/To be a pirate king” while the Major General (Ed Dixon) expresses his profound self-satisfaction with “I am the very model of a modern major general.”
“Even the general’s vacant blonde daughters are thrilled, in their case just to be taking a walk to the seashore. In no way is it ever indicated that the women have anything significant to do other than being pretty,” Gates wrote.
Stagy Victorian-era morality gets a send-up here. This is a world in which even pirates are so relentlessly and tediously high-minded that they can barely turn a buck. A mere mention of the word “duty” prompts the performers to clamp their fists to their chests and lower their heads reverently (and hilariously).
Tony Edgerton is the young hero Frederic, who serves the pirates out of duty because he was accidentally apprenticed to them (his nursemaid — the ever-excellent Sophie Grimm — having confused the words “pilot” and “pirate”). But the moment his apprenticeship ends, Frederic’s sense of duty will of course prompt him to wipe his former friends out of existence, while offering polite apologies (the show’s alternate title is “The Slave of Duty”).
Edgerton tackles all this nonsense head-on, with just the right note of chin-up self-reverential fatuousness to carry it off. “Individually I love you all with affection unspeakable,” Frederic tells his fellow pirates. “But collectively I look upon you with a disgust that amounts to absolute detestation.”
The love songs aren’t as funny as the others, probably because it’s tricky to invest “true love” with a camp sensibility. The audience isn’t quite sure what to think. Is the hero and heroine’s mutual devotion as archly artificial as everything else in this world?
Among the actors who are especially adept at juggling this soufflé of silliness without letting it fall are Cary Mitchell as the first mate Samuel (“I can explain in two words,” he says. “We propose to marry your daughters”) and the heroically voiced Sean Zimmerman as the Pirate King, sinuous and sly.
The sentimental pirates have made it a rule never to prey upon orphans, and are subsequently disappointed to find that everybody they run into turns out to be an orphan, including the Major General. “Do you mean that in order to save his contemptible life, he dared to impress upon our credulous simplicity?” asks Zimmerman, astounded at the very idea of such effrontery.
In a play filled with good lines, Zimmerman gets the best ones. “I don’t think much of our profession, but contrasted with respectability, it is comparatively honest,” he observes, dryly.
The Little Theatre does for operatic pirates pretty much what Johnny Depp did for the cinematic ones.
Incidental Intelligence: The cast also features Jared Titus, Tiffany Sparks, Lauren Patton, Jennifer Seifter, Kelsey Andres, Loren J. Connell, Darrin French, Zachary L. Gray, Sam Hay, Ashley Klinger, Jacob Lacopo, Rachel LaPorte, Justin Ronald Mock, Mandy Modic, CJ Pawlikowski, Keegan Rice and Lincoln Ward. “Pirates” has lighting design by Kimberly Klearman, costume design by Beth Ashby and stage management by Jane Davis. The music director is Joshua Zecher-Ross and the dance captain is Sam Hay.
Performances will run through July 15. Tickets may be purchased by calling The Little Theatre on the Square Box Office at (217)-728-7375 or online at www

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