The Pirates of Penzance Party in Pasadena

Chicago’s The Hypocrites bring the Gilbert & Sullivan’s classic Pirates of Penzance to the Pasadena Playhouse, reinventing it as a wacky beach party – like a Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello throwback. Injecting audience participation and a more contemporary feel, Pirates is a bright, colorful and lively night at the theater.

The Premise

The silly, light-hearted story of Pirates of Penzance follows Frederic who has completed his 21 years of serving the Pirate King and his crew. Once off the ship, Frederic meets Mabel, the first woman he’s ever seen (other than Ruth, the haggard, 47-year-old pirate maid), and they fall in love. However, since Frederic was born in a leap year, Ruth and the Pirate King manipulate his sense of duty and require him to stay onboard until his “twenty-first birthday”. At Frederic’s request, Mabel agrees to wait for his return, but she has a plan of her own, and shenanigans ensue.

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Beware of Flying Beach Balls

Pirates of Penzance takes place on a remodeled stage that includes the audience and a tiki bar. Tom Burch’s scenic design had bleachers surrounding the three-sided set, and audience members sitting at the actors’ feet and on the stage itself. Coolers and kiddy pools were set up for the audience to sit on/in while not being used in the play. Stage managers, or “life guards” as the cast called them, helped the close-up audience members know when they had to move and where the actors needed to go. This system was explained before the show and ran quite smoothly during the production. And Heather Gilbert’s lighting design helped us follow the important action amidst the madness.

As the doors opened and we found our seats, actors in beach party attire wandered around, playing musical instruments, serenading and interacting with the audience. Beach balls were thrown – I saw several oblivious people get hit with them – and drinks were poured. Right from the onset, The Hypocrites made it clear that Pirates was not going to be a “typical” theatrical experience, and that we were in for a playful night out.

The Production

Running at a mere 80 minutes – with a very short intermission – Pirates flew by in merriment and jaunty songs. Because the audience was a part of the show, the actors did not shy away from breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging our presence, which made for quite a few laughs.

I cannot give the actors enough credit for their performances. Not only did they act and sing brilliantly (and with accents), but they played their own instruments, navigated around a moving audience and improvised jokes on the spot. The entire cast was lively and entertaining in addition to being sharp and well-rehearsed; I could tell they were having a blast. Shawn Pfatsch as the Pirate King had a voice to die for; Doug Pawlik’s Frederic exuded charm and naiveté when seeing his world with new eyes; and Matt Kahler as the Major General amazed me with his lightning-speed lyrics. But, in my opinion, Dana Omar (in the dual roles of Ruth and Mabel) stole the show. The differences between her two characters came down to more than just a costume and silly wig; she sang differently, played different instruments and held herself differently with each woman she portrayed. At first I wasn’t sure it was the same actress, but it was and she was fantastic – and what a set of pipes!

Rounding out the Pirates crew were Lauren Vogel (in a very funny gender-swapped role), Mario Aivazian and Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo – each playing an instrument, singing and bringing tons of energy to the stage. Mabel’s sisters – played by Leslie Ann Sheppard, Amanda Raquel Martinez and Tina Munoz-Pandya – were feisty and spirited as they rebuffed the pirates’ advances and played their instruments, all without a bathing cap out of place.

My Nit-Picks

Even though the actors all had microphones and impeccable diction, Gilbert & Sullivan’s fast, tongue-twisting lyrics often had me lost, wondering what was going on. Maybe because of the three-sided set-up, there wasn’t a speaker directly pointed at the sides to hear clearly. I was disappointed I didn’t know much going in because I feel like I missed out on several wordy jokes within the songs. Thankfully, I didn’t miss much during the non-musical dialogue.

While the seating arrangement (and inclusion of the audience) was novel and exciting, it at times led to sightlines being blocked, or one side only seeing the back of an actor’s head. While director Sean Graney and the cast did the most they could to diminish any blocked views, it’s bound to happen in that sort of layout. For the audience sitting in the stage area, I could imagine having to move throughout the play to accommodate the actors to be a bit tiring, and might detract from the performance. I was seated in the bleachers which were slightly uncomfortable chairs, even with the little cushions they added.

The Takeaway

Pirates of Penzance at the Pasadena Playhouse is a bright and cheerful family-friendly romp. The unique setting, modernized script, dynamic cast and absurd story fuse together nicely to create a great all-around show. I laughed at the ineffective pirates, hoped for love to conquer all, and came away from this irreverent and playful adaptation uplifted and wanting more.

Pirates of Penzance has been extended, with shows through February 25th.

Get your tickets here.

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