They fancy themselves a dangerous lot, but the grim list of killed and captured by the Pirates of Penzance is…nonexistent. Their job is to be fierce and take hostages, but somehow - dash it all! – the hostages always turn out to be orphans! And being orphans themselves, they just can’t take ungentlemanly advantage. That means our pirates are no more successful now in 2019 than they were back in 1879. That’s when this Gilbert and Sullivan jewel first held audiences captive with its rapier wit, and it’s been swashing its buckles ever since.
Three cannon shots of congratulation to Riverside for staging this gold nugget and doing it justice. In a whimsical modification, director Catherine Flye has renamed this the “Rascals of the Rappahannock” and brought the pirates to Fredericksburg in the time of George III, as opposed to the Victorian era Cornwall coast.
She has also captured a critical element in its success: tone. “Pirates” anticipates Monty Pythonesque humor by nearly a century, and this crew understands that a joyful embrace of English absurdity is the only way to go. And humor is a serious business.
The first bit of funny happened years earlier when Ruth, a hard-of-hearing nurse, misunderstood her employer’s directive to apprentice young Frederic to “pilots” and turned him over to “pirates” instead. (“When Frederic was a little lad”) They’re not particularly ferocious pirates, although they do say “ARrrr!” very well, and Frederic forged some tender friendships. But now, apprenticeship over, he must go into the world, renounce his past, and get a job. Alas, honor dictates that his new job will be stamping out piracy.
The story would end here rather abruptly but for two things. Frederic sees for the first time in his sheltered life what real girls look like and promptly falls in love with Mabel. (“Oh, false one, you have deceived me” sung to Ruth). And Ruth, with the help of The Pirate King, convinces Frederic that, since he was born on Feb. 29, he is only five and must stay with the pirates until he has celebrated twenty-one actual birthdays. Frederic might be a tad dull-witted, but confound it all, he’s honorable! So he agrees.
The song titles alone signal the tongue-in-cheek approach to the era’s romanticism. “Oh, is there not one maiden breast?” (Frederic sings to the comely damsels); “Hold, Monsters!” (Frederic and the girls address the pirates); “With Cat-like tread, upon our prey we steal” (Pirates and Police). Well, you get the gist.
Here I must point out an overlooked truth: the best designers and performers are not going to be the cheapest. Kudos to producing artistic director, Patrick A’Hearn, for throwing the net far and wide to score what is a near flawless cast. You don’t get these results by making “cheap and available” your first criterion.
I am reminded of this axiom while recalling some of the truly outstanding performances. Andrew Ross Wynn as Major-General Boshington, proud father of the seven damsels, blusters his way to the stage and holds us in thrall with the one song that has survived down to the present, “I am the very model of a modern Major-General.” It’s a virtuoso piece of patter and wit, the performance of which is the operetta’s version of a trapeze act.
The charmingly befuddled Ruth could have been thrown away on any smiling local of middle years, but was not. Sherri Edelen has the specific look, move, attitude, and voice for this important role and holds her own in solo and ensemble.
I’m not overly demanding about my Pirate Kings, but I must insist on a gent who can sing “Away, away! My heart’s on fire” while looking splendid in purple silk and long curly wig. David Jennings is our man. The strength of his stage presence balances the ensemble of his ragged pirate crew, and he is impossible not to watch.
Our lad Frederic is well served by Samuel Keeler’s innocent good looks and rich tenor, though he does fall in love with shocking speed (2.3 seconds). But he falls in love with Mabel. Mabel! Let us put a star by Claire Leyden’s name. Not only is this lovely actress ideal for light operetta, her classically trained soprano has a crystalline purity that I rarely hear on professional stages anywhere. Add her to the entire company singing “Oh, men of dark and dismal fate” and prepare for goose bump-raising harmonies.
This rollicking band of pirates meets their archenemies in the Red-coated militia led by Sgt. Pomfrey played by Alan Hoffman, who shines in roles of dry absurdity. Linda Miller’s original choreography puts the cast through their paces in dances that reflect moment and mood, and Tom Hammond’s costumes are a superb blend of historical lines and light touches of dramatic flair.
All of this comes to us on April Vester’s set designed to accommodate the idea of a rocky Rappahannock shore with docked corsairs, as well as a platform for Joe Walsh’s live orchestra. George III and George Washington observe the goings-on from their portraits on either side.
It’s all delicious, well-made fun. Let us hope that audiences 140 years from now will still get “Pirates’…” swashbuckling appeal.
WANT TO GO?
What: Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” (or “The Rascals of the Rappahannock”)
Where: Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, 95 Riverside Pkwy, Fredericksburg, Va.
Call: (540) 370-4300 or visit riversidedt.com
Playing through July 7