I think for most people, either you love Gilbert and Sullivan, or you don’t. And if you love it, you would see no reason to mess with the lyrics or the music. So I was a bit apprehensive about Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s hint that The Pirates of Penzance was going to include occasional “musical bursts” from popular styles of the last 132 years. Why mess with a good thing?
However, the first time the musical strays from the traditional to a theme you’ll vaguely recognize as something from the Disney movie The Little Mermaid, you realize you can improve on perfection. Soon, the musical becomes a game of “Guess the Genre” as you hear clips from A Chorus Line, Frank Sinatra, Queen, Westside Story, Gospel, Carmen and even pure rap. It’s a musical mash-up that is terrifically entertaining.
Not that director Bill Rauch did this to keep the audience’s attention. Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas have no need of that. It does, however, just add to the general fun of this production.
Subtitled “The Slave of Duty,” Pirates is about a young man apprenticed to a pirate ship (by accident) who is about to leave his indentured service and go out into the world. Frederic tells them he loves all the pirates individually, but once he, himself, is no longer a pirate, it is his duty to wipe them all off the face of the earth.
The pirates, meanwhile, don’t want him to leave and when they learn Frederic was born on Leap Day, they inform him he is technically only 5 years old and therefore still under their servitude until he actually turns 21. Infuriated, but mindful of his duty, Frederic decides to return to the band of pirates.
Complicating the situation is the fact that he has met and fallen in love with Mabel. Of course, everything is filled with comic possibilities and director Rauch makes the most of them. One might even say “overacting” is the rule of thumb, but it’s not Shakespeare, it’s Gilbert and Sullivan, and it all works.
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As for the singing, Eddie Lopez as Frederic has one of the sweetest voices I’ve ever heard on stage, and Michael Elich, who treated us all as Harold Hill in The Music Man two years ago, is a wonderful Pirate King. As the Major-General, David Kelly is a sheer delight. With his excellent performance in The Imaginary Invalid, too, this truly is Kelly’s season to shine. As Mabel, Khori Dastoor has a beautiful, true operatic voice, but because of that, you’ll have to listen a bit more carefully to the words when she sings. Her acting is effective too, and she gets a huge laugh in her reaction shot when Frederic asks her if she’ll wait 64 years until he fulfills his pirate duty.
As the first musical to ever be performed on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, OSF could not have chosen better — the set and costumes are great in this venue and for overall entertainment, The Pirates of Penzance is a must-see this summer in Ashland.
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