Theater Review: A Skewed and Silly “Pirates of Penzance” Sets Sail

Despite its aura of “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” and the profusion of cute props like rubber duckies and ukeleles, The Hypocrites’ production is smart enough not to mess (too much) with the original score and lyrics.

Pirates of Penzance. Operetta by William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. New adaptation by Sean Graney and Kevin O’Donnell. Directed by Graney. The Hypocrites production presented by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA, through June 2.

By Iris Fanger

Zeke Sulkes (Frederic) and Christine Stulik (Mabel) in “Pirates of Penzance.” Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

The operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan are hardly the fashion for generations raised on rock, hip-hop, and rap, but for those of us of a certain age, nursed on them early on at school and camp, the scarcity of productions has left a gaping hole in our collective heart—until now. The Hypocrites, a theater company based in Chicago (my home town), have sailed into Cambridge’s Loeb Drama Center with its skewed and silly production of Pirates of Penzance. This G & S Groupie was thrilled to sing along (which was allowed).

Despite the aura of “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” that surrounds the show and the profusion of cute props like rubber duckies and ukeleles, the 10 member ensemble can be forgiven because they and the artistic staff have the smarts not to mess (too much) with the original score and lyrics. I’m not sure who is the secret weapon behind this crazy-but-not-too-crazy auteur methodology: director Sean Graney; Kevin O’Donnell who arranged the music (sharing credit with the cast); or music director, Andra Velis Simon, but kudos to all. Choreographer Katie Spelman gets extra points for making up dances that fit on and off a wooden pier.

Here’s the premise: Set Pirates on a beach somewhere, maintaining enough of the Victoriana to employ schtick from the British musical hall traditions as well as to keep Gilbert’s jokes in the lyrics and the libretto. Next, dress the cast in Hawaiian shirts and scruffy short-shorts and let them loose. Add a loosey-goosey atmosphere, which invites the audience members to sit wherever they choose, even in parts of the performing space, and serve cold beers from a bar just off stage left. Art and audience inevitably collide: during Wednesday night’s performance, the two little girls who had parked themselves in the large plastic kiddies’ pool were asked to leave before the actors climbed in.

Graney arranges the mayhem with a sure touch, keeping the musical values of the songs intact and casting the show with performers who sing, dance, and play musical instruments so there is no need for an orchestra. The use of omni-talented performers is familiar from the work of Scottish director John Doyle (Sweeney Todd, Company) and the musical adaptation of Once, directed on Broadway by John Tiffany. The one-man-band approach is worked over-time in this version of Pirates. The cast members not only play guitars, flutes, and accordians but also a clutch of spoons, banged rhythmically on a knee, and a musical saw. I adored the effect of a single, warbling harmonica as counterpoint to Mabel and Frederic’s poignant Act II ballad, “Ah, leave me not to pine alone and desolate.”

Robert McLean (Pirate King), Matt Kahler (Major General) in “Pirates of Penzance.” Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Cast members take on numerous roles, except for the full-throated Zeke Sulkes as Frederic, who is the fulcrum of the work and the production. Matt Kahler as the Major General belts out the beloved lyrics to the patter song, “I Am The Very Model of a Modern Major General” with gusto, but he doesn’t take on any extra verses, despite the audience’s ample applause. Christine Stulik as Ruth, the loving but vengeful Nanny to Frederic, also doubles as his love interest, the geeky Mabel, complete with horn-rimmed glasses. She delivers a tour-de-force soprano performance, enhanced by her lightning-fast costume changes. Robert McLean anchors the evening as both the lusty but suave Pirate King and the Sergeant of the Police, whose band delivers a rousing version of its marching song.

To be sure, Gilbert and Sullivan were poking serious fun at those in the government and business who took advantage of their license to steal, a situation no less endemic in our times. I suppose we’re to walk away thinking about the similarities between then and now, the ironic continuities of corruption. However, I left this production singing the operetta’s glorious melodies. It’s not always necessary to be enlightened by theater. Sometimes it’s more than enough to have a rollicking good time.


  1. Shelley on May 21, 2013 at 10:23 am

    Is it just me, or does Mabel in that picture look like a near-twin of Roseanne Roseannadanna?

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