The Pirates of Penzance

PiratesOfPenzanceWritten by Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert

Directed by Emma Couling & Jessie Muntz

On the tall ship “Windy” at Navy Pier

A very model of a modern majorly good time!

During intermission, I did a little impromptu interview of my fellow audience members. Surprisingly, everyone I encountered was from the Chicagoland area. Though of course we deserve as much fun at the theatre as the next person, it was sad that such a Chicago-esque experience wasn’t being enjoyed by more out-of-towners. You’ve got the lake, the views of the skyline, and some charismatic (read: unpretentious) theater. Now in its second year, the on-deck performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comedy operetta is a rousing, frequently laugh-inducing production that gives a front-row seat to the action and humor. On a nice summer day, I can’t think of many better ways to spend your time.

At 134 years old, Pirates (or The Slave of Duty) is still a freshly funny and warmly witty work with several indelible numbers. Even if you don’t know the story, you’ve heard (or heard some derivation) of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” Playing the Major in question, Brian Elliott does a fantastic job with performing the patter piece which traditionally must have its last two stanzas resung at a speed that would seem to defy logic (I liked that it was brought on by a little goading from the Pirate King this time ’round). But I’m getting ahead of myself, first you have to meet Frederick (Christopher Davis).

Pirate of Penzance on the Tall Ship Windy 1

Poor guy—as a young lad, his dotty nanny Ruth (Sydney Ray) misheard his father’s request that he be apprenticed as a ship’s “pilot” and instead put him in with a band of ship’s “pirates.” Thankfully, they are of the soft-hearted variety, and bequeath mercy upon anyone who claims to be an orphan like themselves. As he nears his 21st birthday and the contracted end of this servitude, he bemoans that he will soon have to turn on his brothers due to his overweening sense of duty. By chance, he encounters several fair maiden sisters and quickly falls in love with Mabel (Melissa Scheele) and learns that Ruth, the only woman he knew and thought to be beautiful, was actually something of a crone. When the other pirates find the sisters, they seek to marry them all. Thanks to some clever thinking by their aforementioned father/General Stanley, he plays on their orphanic sympathies to keep them from such a sacrament. In a world where honor is all, it won’t be long before that deception catches up to the honorable General’s conscience.

When the Pirate King (Orion Couling, also the producer) and Ruth conspire to use a bit of semantic loopholery on poor, gullible Frederick (born on a leap year, his 21st birthday won’t occur until 1940), they return him to his duties as a pirate just as he was about to bring about their downfall with the help of some dimwitted policemen. Of course, after all the ensuing battling, it ends happily ever ever and the “curtain” closes on a passionate kiss.

Walking into this, I was a little afraid it wouldn’t be much above the level of dinner theatre. Gratefully that was not the case here. As an ensemble, everyone is brimming with an infectious spirit that kept a goofy smile on my face (and the faces of many of those around me) throughout the light-as-air farce. As breezily effortless as the wind off the lake, they charm with their over-the-top buffoonery and the inherent appeal of such a beloved song and book. Nothing feels phoned in despite having a sure crowd pleaser like Pirates as a basis. Davis is utterly endearing as the naive, wide-eyed and duty-bound apprentice, while Couling acts (and looks) the part of a carousing cavalier with delightful aplomb (his derring do aboard the masts might just give you vertigo). This eclectic band is game for anything, but they honor the operetta even as they have a little fun with it. Though I can’t find a name for their collective, they have a grand chemistry as a troupe and may only exist together for this one show and the chance to perform on such a unique platform.

Pirate of Penzance on the Tall Ship Windy 2

What many may be wondering is “How does this all work?” as far as the nuts-and-bolts of performing on an actual ship on the lake with a non-traditional seating arrangement (at least, I sure did). This is my only caveat to the proceedings. Get a seat on the lower deck facing the center if you can, if you’re facing out you may have to do a lot of neck turning (as I did) to see all the action. Though the performers move amongst you (and just may engage you in the action), it can give a bit of a crick in the neck if you’re not optimally seated. From a technical standpoint, the keyboard sometimes overshadowed the vocals, and I think if this production keeps getting remounted (which Navy Pier should definitely encourage) it would be wise to invest in a more elaborate sound system to befit the many fine vocals on display.

That barely gets up to the level of a quibble though when this much amusement and mirth is occurring all around you as the sun sets behind the city. I sincerely hope some visitors read this and hightail it over to Navy Pier for this every-so-jaunty good time.

Highly Recommended.

Reviewed by Clint May

Date Reviewed: June 23, 2013

On the tall ship “Windy”, setting sail from Navy Pier. Call 312.451.2700, tickets $30-65, Saturdays & Sundays 7:30pm, Saturday Matinee July 13 2;15pm,  rain dates Saturday July 20 & 27, 7:30pm, running time 90 minutes with 1 intermission, through July 13, 2013.

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