Also see Bob's review of The Play's the Thing
First things first: I've never been much of a Gilbert and Sullivan fan. Their style of music has always seemed too florid and quaint for me, and the presentations I've seen of their operettas have always been too boring to interest me very much.
Well, there's nothing quaint or boring about Pirates!, the new adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance now running at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Pirates! plays fast and loose with the original operetta and turns it into a breezy, lighthearted and very accessible musical comedy.
Gerry McIntrye, Ed Dixon, Liz McCartney, Andrew Varela,
Barrett Foa and Farah Alvin
As reconceived by director Gordon Greenberg, writer Nell Benjamin and musical supervisor John McDaniel, the setting of Pirates! has been transplanted from England in the late 19th century to the Caribbean in the early 18th century, and the Pirate King has been given a red bandanna, a black vest and a hairdo that makes him resemble a certain Pirate of the Caribbean who is now being seen in movie theaters all over the world. His appearance in the show's first moments hints at what fun the show's creators are having with the conventions of Penzance - but there's more cheekiness to come. The heroine, Mabel, has been transformed into a naturalist who first approaches her would-be lover Frederic with a magnifying glass and a butterfly net. ("Take heart," sing her sisters, "she may be weird/But take heart, and be not afear'd.") And Ruth, Frederic's nursemaid, has been changed into a bawdy wench who is anything but the chaste angel Frederic thinks she is. (While this might seem distasteful, it's actually an improvement on Gilbert and Sullivan's dated depiction of Ruth as an ugly, bitter hag.)
The basic plotline is unchanged: Frederic, noble and trustworthy, falls for Mabel, who in this version is smart and sassy. Blocking the way of true love, though, are the pirates to whom Frederic has been indentured to since childhood, as well as Mabel's father, Major-General Stanley. And one new element has been added: a witch's curse that forces the men to remain pirates unless "You find a maiden pure/Whom you're prepared to marry." The curse subplot improves the show, setting up an ending that is more satisfying than the original.
W.S. Gilbert's book and lyrics have largely been rewritten, and some of the changes are extensive; for instance, the Major-General's song ("I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General ...") retains only its first verse, with two new verses added by Benjamin. McDaniel has given many of Sullivan's tunes slower tempos and lowered keys to help drive the jokes home; there are even calypso versions of "Tarantara" and "A Policeman's Lot," delivered by a ragtag group of island natives who get pressed into service to arrest the pirates. But the lack of reverence for the original text actually fits the tone of this production well. Greenberg's lively direction gives the show a jocular spirit that lets us know that no one is taking any of this "pirate curse" nonsense too seriously. Warren Carlyle's choreography brims with energy, making the most of the limited playing space (an onstage orchestra uses up a lot of room).
Best of all, there's a terrific, ingratiating cast that puts across the material with the right blend of archness and earnestness. Ed Dixon is delightfully hammy as the Major-General, stopping the show not just with the "Modern Major-General" song but with a second patter number, "The Nightmare!" (which is actually lifted from another G&S show, Iolanthe). Barrett Foa is totally winning as the fresh-faced Frederic, and Farah Alvin is a Mabel with backbone, charisma and a gorgeous voice. There are also strong comic turns by Liz McCartney, as a very robust Ruth, and Gerry McIntyre, who makes the most of his limited stage time as the Sergeant. Even the ensemble has its standouts; special notice should be made of the young ladies who play Mabel's sisters, who are, as they admit, "awfully good at smiling vacantly." The only disappointment in the cast is Andrew Varela as the Pirate King, who is rather colorless in a role that calls for flamboyance.
Not every modernization Benjamin has added to Pirates! is an improvement; in particular, there are a series of crude and unnecessary gags - one involving vomit, another involving the word "fornicating" - that unfortunately take this show out of the realm of family entertainment. And there are times when Pirates! can get a little too cute for its own good; it's a relief when the show finally slow down a bit in act two for a serious love duet between Frederic and Mabel.
There are sure to be purists who will object to any changes to an esteemed classic; for those people, there are plenty of versions of the original Pirates of Penzance available in video and audio recordings. But if all you're looking for is to be entertained, head to Paper Mill, where this group of Pirates! will steal your heart.
Pirates! runs through Sunday, July 8, 2007. Ticket prices range from $19 to $68, with student rush tickets available, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 973-376-4343, in person at Brookside Drive in Millburn, or online at www.papermill.org.