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The ensemble of Pirates of Penzance at the Pasadena Playhouse. (Photo by Jenny Graham)
The ensemble of Pirates of Penzance at the Pasadena Playhouse. (Photo by Jenny Graham)

Pirates of Penzance 

Reviewed by Katie Buenneke 
The Hypocrites at the Pasadena Playhouse 
Through February 25 

When W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan premiered their operetta Pirates of Penzance in 1879, they never could have imagined the Hypocrites’ winning production, now playing at the Pasadena Playhouse 138 years later.

True, Gilbert and Sullivan were never stuffy — evidence of that is in the songs themselves, including the show’s most famous ditty, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” But it’s unlikely that the famed operetta writers would ever conceive a kitschy, family-friendly 80-minute version of their show, re-orchestrated with an Eastern European/folk rock feel and featuring toddlers toddling across the stage.

Director Sean Graney has significantly streamlined the show (which is generally considered one of the most important predecessors of the contemporary musical form), stripping it down to its most essential elements: a cast of ten which doubles as the orchestra; a beachy, egalitarian set (designed by Tom Burch); and, of course, an on-stage Tiki bar that you can visit at any point during the show.

This is not your great-grandparents’ Gilbert and Sullivan: these Pirates firmly belong to children (and their families, of course). For each performance, 160 of the show’s “seats” aren’t seats in any conventional sense of the word. You’re welcome to sit wherever you’d like — in one of the three onstage kiddie pools, atop a cooler, or perched on the dock — but the actors may ask you to move at a moment’s notice. The audience becomes the sea, displaced momentarily by the performers as they navigate the stage. (For those who prefer more fixed seating arrangements, fret not: there’s also assigned seating on folding chairs that stay put.)

The story follows Freddy (Doug Pawlik), a young man who, through no fault of his own, spent the first 21 years of his life with the titular pirates. They’re not particularly fearsome scallywags: under their King (Shawn Pfatsch), they’re best known for refusing to fight anyone who claims to be an orphan, which means that every would-be foe is, shockingly, an orphan. Freddy is excited to leave the pirates and marry the fourth young woman he meets, Mabel (Dana Omar) — but he learns that leaving the pirate life behind is not so simple, especially if you were born on a leap day (contractually, Freddy can’t leave until his 21st birthday, which is not the same as his 21st year of life).

The cast perform ably and seem to be having a lot of fun. That joy is infectious, especially with the numerous children in attendance at a recent matinee performance. When the performers interact with the kids, you can see their eyes light up as they discover the magic of theater.

Graney’s production is clearly intended more for a family audience than for childless folk; there are several hallmarks of Theatre for Young Audiences, including emphasizing certain words with repeated gestures to underscore their importance and/or that they’re recurring themes, or using ASL in an early song to differentiate between “pilot” and “pirate.” That’s not to say there aren’t jokes for older people, too: when Mabel’s sisters first appear, they’re playing ukuleles and singing Kelis’ “Milkshake,” a 2004 pop song that reached critical mass in the movie Mean Girls. But even with those nods, the show’s intent is clear: this is for families.

The biggest trouble spot is clarity. Due to a combination of an inferior sound design and the cast’s poor enunciation, it’s hard to follow the wordy patter songs that speed by. When paired with the pared-down plot and the somewhat chaotic staging, it’s easy to lose track of the narrative.

Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the Hypocrites’ pirates. This version, which premiered seven years ago in Chicago (the company’s home) feels honed, comfortable and fun. It’s also a fascinating example of the liberties that public domain allows. Ironically, Gilbert and Sullivan went out of their way to copyright Pirates of Penzance, having been burned by American copyright laws in the 1870s when they wrote H.M.S. Pinafore. But now anyone can interpret the work however they like. Here, that means filling the stage with beach balls, putting the whole cast in short shorts, and having a wonderfully diverse cast. The Hypocrites have provided an interpretation that, as cliché as it sounds, is fun for everyone.

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Tues.-Fri. at 8 p.m., Sat., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; through Feb. 25. Running time: 80 minutes with a three-minute intermission.