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Jonathan Brody in The Pirates of Penzance
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
There is a priceless, wildly funny moment at the end of the cheeky production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance now playing on the open deck of the tall ship Peking at the South Street Seaport. A disheveled Gilbert and Sullivan appear, aghast at what they're seeing. When asked why they look so dirty, Gilbert barks on their behalf, "Because we've been rolling in our graves!" The line gets a huge laugh because we know that it's so true.

This is not your mother's (or great, great, great grandmother's) Pirates of Penzance. Self-aware and oh-so-irreverent, this newish production (it played in New York last summer) swaggers with a youthful, modern humor. The melodies--if not the musical styles--are still Sullivan's (although two songs are from other Sullivan scores), while Gilbert's lyrics have in many instances been updated with topical humor. In other words: Traditionalists, beware! About five minutes into the show, you may want to run to the railing of the ship and throw yourself overboard. But for those who don't mind a little tampering with a classic, this Pirates will provide an hour and a half of musical amusement along with an ever-so-slight aerobic workout.

This environmental production apparently marks the very first time that the show has been presented on the deck of a ship. (There's a reason for that: As written, the operetta doesn't actually take place on a ship.) Dress casually and comfortably for this experience; we suggest sneakers or rubber-soled shoes, because the audience travels with the players from one end of the main deck to the other, and there are times when you will be sitting on the deck or standing at the rails. Also: Do your shopping at the Seaport after the show (rather than before) so you won't be burdened with bags or packages. (For the less adventurous--or less mobile--chairs are provided at the edge of the upper deck.)

The production follows a current trend among Off-Broadway musicals: Like Bat Boy and Urinetown, for example, it derives a good deal of humor from its references to shows that have become part of musical theater history--in this case, West Side Story, Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, The Sound of Music, etc. It's fair to say that any adult interested in seeing The Pirates of Penzance will already be enough of an insider to get all of these gags. Younger audience member may wonder why the adults are laughing. Still, children of all ages can delight in the good-natured silliness of this show.

The basic story of the operetta is unchanged: Frederic (Colin Hanlon), upon turning 21, has fulfilled his pirate apprenticeship and decides to leave his buccaneer buddies. The naïve young man then discovers his first young woman, Mabel (Montego Glover), and promptly falls in love with her, only to find that she's the daughter of a Major General (Martin Van Treuren). Meanwhile, the Pirate King (Jonathan Brody) and his crew attempt to ravish the Major General's brood of daughters, but are thwarted by the old fellow's lie that he's an orphan. It's against the code of the pirates to harm an orphan, you see, so they slink off. Later learning that they've been deceived, they come back for revenge, and Frederic gets caught in the middle.

Martin Van Treuren and company
in The Pirates of Penzance
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The topsy-turvy plot gets some extra twists in this current production. An actor in drag plays Frederic's nanny, Ruth, an older woman who wants to bed her fair young charge. The Major General's daughters--half of them men in drag, as well--arrive on deck as a band of cheerleaders, complete with pom-poms. The production will go anywhere for a joke, aiming zingers at the likes of Bill Clinton and Mayor Giuliani. So, too, every possible musical style--from rap to doo-wop to rhythm & blues to country--is heard at some point in the proceedings.

Not all of the gags work, and not every actor is up to the challenge. But the show floats nonetheless (if you'll excuse the expression). Its two best performances are by one actor, Van Treuren, who plays both Ruth and the Major General. He has the theatrical stature for both roles, playing them broadly and with a beguiling sense of comedy. Hanlon and Glover have lovely voices and winning ways as the two young lovers. Among the leads, only Jonathan Brody's Pirate King was lacking in the vocal department. The real stars of the show, however, are Michael Scheman and Steven Gross, who adapted Gilbert & Sullivan's work for this cracked production. Scheman has also directed the show with energy and imagination, while Gross provided the witty arrangements.

You might be surprised to learn that the original Pirates of Penzance had its world premiere not in England, but here in New York at the Fifth Avenue Theater on December 31, 1879. Happily, it has sailed into port yet again, and it's a whole lot of fun in this staging aboard the Peking. Can HMS Pinafore be far behind? For that matter, what about Dames at Sea? In the spirit of this Pirates, it's clear that Anything Goes.

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