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Paper Mill concludes its season with this beautifully sung, modernized adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance. logo
A scene from Pirates!
(© Gerry Goodstein)
The Paper Mill Playhouse is finally pulling out of its financial difficulties, with the promise of brighter tomorrows. Therefore, fiddling with Sir Arthur Sullivan and Sir William S. Gilbert's Pirates of Penzance so that it acquires a heightened Pirates of the Caribbean commercial gloss may sound like a prescient idea for an outfit now openly in need of box-office sure things.

As it happens, the long-planned Pirates! -- boasting that exclamation point to imply added high-seas excitement -- sails into port with numerous entertainment treasures in its hold. But the audience's abundant enjoyment of the show has little to do with the contemporary treatment given by director-conceiver Gordon Greenberg, librettist-lyricist Nell Benjamin, and musical director John McDaniel. On the contrary, it has everything to do with how beautifully and articulately the Sullivan melodies are sung.

The whopping share of credit goes to the top-notch cast: Ed Dixon as the very model of a modern major general, Farah Alvin as a modernized Mabel, Andrew Varela as the little-tampered-with Pirate King, Barrett Foa as innocent and dutiful Frederic, and Liz McCartney as a needlessly hot-to-trot Ruth. Collectively, these bold chanteurs and chanteuses turn this enterprise into something that rouses the crowd to cheers on several occasions. Indeed, Dixon's "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General," which includes a death-defying, trip-hammer encore, will alone strike many loyal patrons as worth the price of admission.

Moreover, Alvin, whose Mabel arrives via passenger balloon, sings "Poor Wand'ring One" like a bird liberated from her cage. Varela delivers "The Pirate King" with much mock macho gusto, while Foa and McCartney give their tunes everything they've got -- and they've got plenty. Toss in a robust, nine-man pirate chorus, plus the silvery twitterings of a sextet of sisters, and the musical result is one that could hardly be improved upon.

Unfortunately, other so-called improvements don't invite unqualified praise. Very little argument besides crass and misguided commercialism can be advanced for what Benjamin -- currently represented on Broadway as part of the Legally Blonde songwriting team -- has done to the Pirates of Penzance book. True, the grounds on which such alterations might be made would have to involve satire and topicality, since Gilbert was unabashedly critical of the English manner and mores. Had Benjamin introduced clever up-to-date spoofing along those lines, she could be commended.

As it is, she throws in only two gags hinting at Bush administration chicanery. Instead, she superfluously cribs a plot twist from Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore, having to do with a curse under which the pirates live. In addition, she inserts something about wobbly sea legs on land that doesn't pay off. And in rewriting the brilliant Gilbert's words, she slots several vulgarities, including giving Mabel's nubile sisters some very questionable dialogue about fornication.

Why she has succumbed to such a low impulse might be traced to Greenberg. Yes, he moves his players around Rob Bissinger's colorful concert-version set nicely, but he doesn't seem to trust the source material. That was true in his 2006 revival of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, where he excessively gussied up the great Belgian's numbers. Luckily, in Pirates!, choreographer Warren Carlyle keeps the dance movements appropriately amusing.

One of the pluses of Pirates! is its handy proof that, when treated with enthusiastic respect, the work is timeless. So there's no need to titillate an audience by suggestively posing McCartney's Ruth astride a confetti-spouting cannon; Gilbert and Sullivan have already provided all the intellectual and visceral titillation necessary.

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