I see a lot of regional theater, and we’re lucky enough to live in an area rife with talented artistic personalities possessed of strong visions, capable of producing work that can be in turns heartbreakingly relevant and bitingly funny. But here is the thing — something’s been missing from local stages. It is rare that I take in a production that is just bursting with fun — a show that’s loud and unapologetically brassy and bold in its embrace of comedy. Bristol Riverside Theater’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” definitely hits that spot. Keith Baker’s smoothly directed and updated production gets the spirit of the classical musical comedy right and presents it with all-ages friendly bravado and a refreshing, muppety sense of joyous physical humor.
With their “HMS Pinafore,” Gilbert and Sullivan perfected a unique mix of high and lowbrow comedy that later became the staple of a whole school of frat boy-style broad humor with a fine and playful point at the end (Abbott and Costello owe a lot to these guys).
Though by two acclaimed Englishmen, “The Pirates of Penzance” premiered in 1879 in New York instead of London. The move was primarily to ensure copyright protection in the United States. Gilbert and Sullivan had lost a small fortune to rogue stagings of “HMS Pinafore,” and the titular pirates were intended as a sly skewering of these illegal productions. Regardless of that, “Pirates” was a monster hit in its time, with its everything-including-the-kitchen-sink mix of charming rascals, stiff-lipped lawmen, enticing virgins, and hyper-convoluted relationships and reversals.
It’s easy to get a headache if one spends too much time tracing some of the circuitous plot points; with that in mind, Baker’s direction keenly focuses the energy on the jokes and stripping away at elements that might get in their way. The run-time is reduced to a trim and brisk two hours, a modern electric guitar is added to the arrangements, and Julia C. Lee’s set design — a mammoth copy of the Pirates score, opened up and on its side — is well-suited as an open play space for a company of goofy actors to romp around.
I am not going to spoil much of the plot here because I would very much like you to bring a young person or two with you who might have a lot of experience with Cartoon Network shows such as “Adventure Time” and “Phineas and Ferb”; kids will recognize and hopefully latch onto the abject, larger-than-life silliness in this production.
Basically: Frederic (Patrick Dunn) is newly turned 21 and has spent much of his life apprenticed to a crew of pirates. Now that his destiny is in his own hands, he aspires to a more lawful lifestyle and dedicates himself to the capture and extermination of his former buddies. Of course, along the way he falls in love with the winsome Mabel (Maria Failla). Then there are a couple dozen twists and turns here and there. But you don’t need to worry about those; just come prepared for a good time, and you will be rewarded and pleasantly surprised.
Dunn in particular acquits himself nicely, sliding perfectly into the swashbuckling and animated reality Baker has created. He is also great with teasing some modern touches without going overboard; a subtle moment of Elvis (you’ll know it when you see it) was a perfect touch at just the right time. Failla’s voice is gorgeous, and while Mabel doesn’t have a lot to do, she’s definitely more than the damsel in distress you might expect. Nick Cordero’s Pirate King is well-rendered as a goofy, smarmy older frat brother, and April Woodall’s Ruth (Frederic’s surrogate mother of sorts) provides a rollicking good time every time she hits the stage, with a Bette Midler-esque presence that is juuuuuust this side of being a little bit naughty.
The song everyone is waiting for, of course, is “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.” That song basically invented an entire genre known as “the patter song” of whip-smart, hyper-speed lyrics delivered with ultra-crisp diction. Larry Cahn gives a fine performance of the piece, with everyone else joining in. Musical aficionados are going to really love the full choral moments of “Pirates”; it’s great to see an ambitious musical with a large cast and a full, rich sound on a stage outside of Philadelphia.
All in all, “The Pirates of Penzance” at Bristol Riverside is the perfect gateway into theater for a young person with a strong sense of humor and pop culture sensibility. It’s breezy, well-delivered enjoyment that leaves you smiling and relaxed after two hours of goofy fun.
The Pirates of Penzanze, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. Through Sunday, April 28. $15 to $54. www.brtstage.org or 215-785-0100.