When librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan teamed up to create “The Pirates of Penzance,” which debuted in New York City on New Year’s Eve 1879, few would be able to imagine how the two-act comic operetta about an indentured pirate, his cohort of ruffians, and the Major General and his daughters would evolve. The Hypocrites, a Chicago Theatre Troupe that acts outside of the box and playfully challenges theatre norms — and is led by its founder, director, and co-adapter Sean Graney (Kevin O’Donnell is the other co-adapter) — have skillfully brought “The Pirates of Penzance” into the modern era while paying homage to the charm and hysterics of the original work.
The Hypocrites’ version has played to boisterous audiences in Chicago, Louisville, Berkeley, Maryland, Cambridge (Mass.), New York, and is now playing at the historic landmark Pasadena Playhouse, where it has already been extended through February 25th. The Pasadena Playhouse, which is celebrating its centennial season, first hosted “The Pirates of Penzance” in 1922, and now does so with a joie de vivre that bowls over attendees, who have not, nor will ever, see anything else like this.
The classic theatre has been gloriously upended of its traditional setup, such that a large deck has been built over the orchestra seats, where the topsy-turvy show takes place amid a rollicking beach-bonfire theme, with festooned lights, and an actual Tiki bar. It is surrounded by the audience, who either sit in the middle of the proceedings, where they become part of the action (in the “promenade”), or take it all in from surrounding brightly colored chairs, including where the proscenium arch would be.
The uniqueness of this is immediately absorbed before the show even begins, adding to the overall experience which bridges the divide between audience and performer like never before – a central priority of Graney’s vision. Certainly, scenic, prop, lighting, and costume designers – Tom Burch, Maria DeFabo Akin, Heather Gilbert, and Alison Siple, respectively – have helped to impeccably bring to life an astonishing ambiance, as ticket-holders find themselves smiling from the moment they step onto the platform. They will then volley beach balls, plastic sharks, and rubber duckies in a myriad of directions, lounge in an array of children’s wading pools, and interact with the multi-instrumentalist performers, who are wearing ready-to-toga-party, pajama-inspired garb (note: the technical crew members are dressed as lifeguards!). And, as is explained by a few of the cast members prior to the 80-minute extravaganza, audience members, who are smack-dab in the thick of it, are often motioned to make way for the actors during certain scenes – and they do so with a seamlessness as if they had rehearsed it.
This is undoubtedly not a passive viewing experience, but one with active involvement that enables the troupe to be improvisational, spectacularly satirical, and even delightfully self-aware at times, as they may “dutifully” announce the chord they’re playing (“G7!”), break out to the tune of a Top-50 hit (e.g., “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor), and acknowledge the crowd in a way that makes the performance feel refreshingly organic.
As renowned as “The Pirates of Penzance” is, the plot in this adaptation takes a slight and expected backseat to the fantastically frenetic spectacle and musical prowess of the performers, whose ad-hoc movements have been choreographed by Katie Spelman, and their melodious talents optimized by musical director Andra Velis Simon. Besides singing individually or in unison, each of the performers astoundingly plays at least one instrument; there are those, however, who surprise by being fluent in several modes of instrumentation (some more exotic than others).
Accordions, mandolins, flutes, clarinets, ukuleles, violins, and especially guitars and banjos abound, generating engaging sounds that become riled up, tapered down for melancholic effect, and remain consistently pleasing to the ears. Doug Pawlik, who dazzles with the guitar, banjo, and clarinet, is the orphaned and unwilling pirate, Frederic, who falls in love with Major-General Stanley’s daughter Mabel, and then subsequently realizes that his contract as a pirate is to expire after 21 birthdays, not 21 years (because he was born on February 29th, a leap year). Pawlik has a riveting command of the audience, and is quick on his feet, getting across the love-struck temperament of his character with great energy, starting with “Pour, Oh Pour the Pirate Sherry.”
As both the homely Ruth, who mistakenly arranges Frederic’s pirate servitude, and as Frederic’s object of affection, Mabel, the multitalented Dana Omar gives arguably the most impressive musical performance, on more than one occasion, though especially on the banjo, which she plucks with unremitting fervor. Omar has a robust and versatile voice, too, that can resound operatically or even soften in plaintive fashion, as in when she melts the audience’s hearts during “Stay Frederic, Stay.”
Matt Kahler, who particularly shines on the guitar, is a charismatic sensation as the Major General, sporting a shining silver helmet and all, and doesn’t disappoint with the diction-dependent and heavy rhyme scheme of the most popular of “The Pirates of Penzance’s” tunes, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” Kahler strums at lightning speed, standing tall and confident, enunciating with a gravitas that is fitting of his persona’s eminence. He also surprises with the self-reflective and wistful “Hush, Hush! Not a Word” and “Sighing Softly to the River” songs, which ring out like beautiful ballads.
Perhaps the most appropriately outlandish of the bunch is Shawn Pfautsch as the imperious, daunting, and, of course, funny Pirate King. In a mere T-shirt and short-shorts (like his male-performer peers), and with a cap that haphazardly spells out “KING,” Pfautsch is a wrecking ball of mirthful fun, part haughty and part ham. He has a powerful voice that must be heeded, and this allows him to affect a vocally gritty presentation to his songs, as in “Away, Away! My Heart’s on Fire.” Not to mention, Pfautsch is also very proficient in keeping the audience at attention with his inflections, and creative interpretations/add-ons.
The Major’s other three daughters – depicted by Leslie Ann Sheppard, Amanda Raquel Martinez and Tina Muñoz-Pandya – are as vivacious as can be, shimmying elegantly through the audience and bringing a gusto as the maidens who are desired insatiably by the pirates (Lauren Vogel, Mario Aivazian, and Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo). From an instrumental standpoint, Muñoz-Pandya is given the opportunity to stand out with her endearing playing of the musical saw, from which winning tones emanate from.
Overall, the sense of triumph never ceases in The Hypocrites’ “Pirates of Penzance,” which is a must-see production, because it not only continues the quick-wittedness and unrestrained jocularity of Gilbert and Sullivan’s artistic intent with virtuoso performers, but pushes past the limits of pre-existing theatrical conventions. As a result, it offers a collective experience that allows patrons to immerse themselves in the narrative not only vicariously, but physically. Graney’s brand and band of merry performers may have very well pioneered the next revolution in theatre.
As part of the Pasadena Playhouse’s new Community@Play initiative, all seventh-grade students in the Pasadena Unified School District will be able to see The Hypocrites’ “Pirates of Penzance” free of charge. For more information about the production, please visit pasadenaplayhouse.org