Chicago Theater Review: THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE (Music Theater Works in Evanston)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 10, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


Music Theater Works just unleashed 140 minutes of undiluted ecstasy and hilarious nonsense, and the lucky location is Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium in Evanston. True to the topsy-turvy twists and turns of Victorian satire, this gem sounds great with Linda Madonia’s 26-piece orchestra, looks great with awesomely accurate costumes by Jana Anderson, and works great with the triumphantly cast performers inspired and perfected by artistic director Rudy Hogenmiller.

It’s a labor of love for an operetta that endures: An inexhaustible wonder since 1879, The Pirates of Penzance, or the Slave of Duty is the fifth of the twelve Savoy operas by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Premiering simultaneously in New York and London (to protect its unrecognized copyright from American “pirates”), it rapturously repeated the nautical success of H.M.S. Pinafore, its immensely popular predecessor. Potent and persuasive as ever, its laughter remains a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

But here instead of depicting “the lass who loved a sailor,” Gilbert’s zaniness centers on an overly zealous young man: Frederic, the rigidly righteous “slave of duty.” We’re to believe that this innocent youth was erroneously apprenticed to an out-of-history pirate crew by Ruth. She’s the ninny of a nanny who misheard the parents’ wish that Frederic be educated as a “pilot,” not “pirate.” But, faithful to his bond and to his unfailing sense of honor, Frederic has dutifully — and anachronistically — pillaged and plundered the south coast of England. He remains accompanied by a chastened and cougar-like Ruth, “a piratical maid of all works,” who, despite a quarter-century age difference, lusts for her charge.

Vowing vengeance, Frederic is about to turn 22. He won’t just quit the company of these rampaging rascals who he has secretly despised his entire life: He means to exterminate them. As for Ruth, the lad, who has never seen another woman’s face, suddenly discovers that this 47-year-old harridan has deceived him about her youth and comeliness. The cause of his disillusionment: the arrival of a bevy of beauties, the many daughters of Major-General Stanley. These demure demoiselles are out on a lark, respectable maidens unaware of the imminent dangers of abduction by a troupe of Cornwall corsairs.

When Ruth, the loveliest sibling, falls in love with a smitten Frederic, the former brigand is wrenched by a conflict of conscience: To protect his love as much as to atone for his past, he will annihilate the Pirate King and his atavistic buccaneers — until a clueless Frederic discovers a paradox that will suddenly return him to their ranks for the next 63 years. How can Frederic retain Mabel’s “love at first sight” while remaining faithful to his overweening burden of obligation?

Along the merry way, Sullivan graces Gilbert’s brilliant nonsense with the ladies’ ebullient “Climbing Over Rocky Mountains” (recycled from their first operetta Thespis); Mabel’s gorgeous waltz entrance “Poor Wandering One”; the lilting duet “Oh, Leave Me Not To Pine”; the Major-General’s patter song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” (a spoof of political appointees with no military knowledge); the ballad of the cowardly constables, “A Policeman’s Lot Is Not a Happy One”; and the infectiously invigorating “Come Friends Who Plow the Sea” (sung in New York as “Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here!”). Clayton Cross’s choreography finds all the right steps to release Sullivan’s plethora of happiness.

Best of all, Hogenmiller’s cast, showcase-splendid and completely convincing, fills the bill beyond the highest expectations. Gifted with all the graces of youth, including a super smile, Ben Barker’s overly idealistic Frederic pines and plans to protect his impetuous passion for Cecilia Iole’s captivating Mabel, whose effortless coloratura perfectly complements Barker’s golden tenor. The chorus of sisters is spot-on throughout. As the odd woman out, skilled comedienne Nancy Hays turns Ruth into a fairly nice nemesis, considering the misogyny Gilbert embedded in the stereotype.

Chicago favorite Larry Adams gets everything right about the rambunctious Pirate King, as do the swashbucklers in this curious assemblage of abandoned orphans and possible peers of the realm. Likewise, James Harms — a five-star jester on any stage — makes Major-General Stanley a delightfully dithering doofus. As another merrily mocked authority figure, PJ Wilborn’s Sergeant of Police is, considering the 2018 variety, a refreshingly harmless cop.

An exhilarating excuse to make your heart happy, Hogenmiller’s revival could not deliver more contagious fun. The fact that it must close in just over a week amounts to a crime against culture. Make your month and see this show.

photos by Brett Beiner

The Pirates of Penzance
Music Theater Works
Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street in Evanston
Fri and Sat at 8; Wed and Sun at 2
ends on June 17, 2018
for tickets: 847.920.5360 or Music Theater Works

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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