Shiver my timbers, as Long John Silver would say. This week Forest Park is awash with pirates, and they are a fearsome bunch. Fearsomely funny, that is. Pirates! (or, Gilbert & Sullivan Plunder'd) is a spirited new spin on the 1879 operetta The Pirates of Penzance. Inspired by the popular Pirates of the Caribbean movies, this guileless mélange — orphaned pirates marauding the land meet up with seven sisters seeking adventure — is a cheerful romp.
In adding a veritable treasure chest of new plot twists, the creative team hasn't really plundered W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's original musical. As reconceived by Gordon Greenberg, Nell Benjamin and former St. Louisan John McDaniel, Pirates! mostly extends the irreverent, satirical tone that already was in place — and it does so in an admirably disciplined manner. How easy it could have been for the new script to succumb to off-color and double-entendre. But these pirates are not so much bawdy as naughty. True, this might be the first time the noun "syphilis" has been uttered on the Muny stage. But as another song — one not written by G&S — ever reminds us, the times they are a-changin'. And good that they are.
Pirates! already has enjoyed three stagings prior to this week, but the project requires further work if it is to sail on to other ports of call. Mostly, the opening minutes should be tightened. Pirates! needs to open as briskly as it ends. The conceit that we in the audience are attending a production of the Caribbean Light Opera Society is an unhelpful distraction (one that even wastes valuable space in the playbill). Attention also must be paid to rethinking the introduction of the plot line about "the pirate curse." As new material, it needs further clarity. But once the musical takes hold with "I Am a Pirate King," the merry spoofing kicks in and never relents. Nothing is sacred, not even the Muny itself. Midway through Act Two, the Muny youth ensemble (which has been used to remarkable effect this summer) is given a rare opportunity to make fun of itself.
Although the role of the Pirate King has been modeled after Jack Sparrow, as performed here with a soft-headed brio by Hunter Foster, the King is more beholden to Henry Winkler than to Johnny Depp. Foster's King is slyly mindful of Happy Days' Fonzie — and the innocent Frederic (a sweetly earnest Jay Armstrong Johnson), who hopes to divest himself of all things piratical on this, his twenty-first birthday, provides a foil seemingly modeled after Ron Howard's Richie Cunningham. Indeed, although the Johnny Depp movies may have been the port of departure, the show's high spirits are reminiscent of an earlier film. Think of it as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers Pirates.
As a work in progress with no box-office "names" in the cast, Pirates! well may be the Muny's riskiest gamble of the summer. Yet the production is impeccable. Take note, for instance, of the ensemble as Ed Dixon sings the perennially convoluted showstopper, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General." A subtle bounce of the heels transforms the chorus from onstage listeners to something akin to another instrument in the orchestra.
Midway through Act Two, when Mabel, the most independent of the seven sisters (the lovely Analisa Leaming), assists Frederic with some simple math equations, with a sense of wonder in his voice he tells her, "I find your intelligence charming." That throwaway line could be the maxim for the entire production. A lot of smarts have gone into making this show so inane. Forget the Jolly Roger. This Pirates! is just jolly.
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