Review | The Pirates of Penzance: a fresh reframing of a beloved classic

Park Square Theatre, through March 25

The ensemble. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

There is a reason Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance is a theater mainstay – it is clever, approachable, and hilarious. Yet, with so many productions of the show over the years, it’s charm inevitably has faded for all but the unacquainted. However, Park Square Theatre’s current production (running through March 25th on their Proscenium Stage) breathes new life into this well-tred material. Their new adaptation has reframed the show to feel fresh and exciting for even those well-familiar with its enduring tunes and zany antics.

The adaptation takes us along on the journey of the show’s creation, where after the success of HMS Pinafore and its subsequent piracy throughout America, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan have set sail to Broadway from England to stage a new production. However in a strange-but-true turn of events, Sullivan has forgotten to pack most of the music, and they must rewrite it on the way.

What results is an ingenious weaving of historical footnotes, metacommentary, and stripped-down renditions of the classic show’s beloved content. Director Doug Scholz-Carlson wisely imbues the real-life aspects of the tale with levity to compliment and highlight what has made the songs and characters of Pirates so indelible. Seen through the panicked and scrutinizing eyes of its creators, we are invited to join in appreciating anew its sheer absurdity.

The new material written by Scholz-Carlson and Bradley Greenwald, as well as with the show’s cast, is full of love, as they clearly adore the source material and its history. This sense of affection is also felt in the show’s memorable, original performances. Bradley Greenwald leads the bunch as both Sullivan and the Pirate King, parts he endearingly milks for laughs at every opportunity. Max Wojtanowicz also stands out as the clueless leading tenor Hugh Talbot, and Frederic, Pirates’ lovelorn protagonist.

Perhaps the show’s most inspired twist is to allow Christina Baldwin to flex her strengths in three distinct roles – as real-life producer Helen Lenoir, the Major General, and the Sergeant of Police. The show-within-a-show framing allows not only for one of the Twin Cities’ best talents to take on these iconically masculine roles, but it also allows for timely, witty gender commentary – including a newly written verse to “Modern Major General”! Zach Garcia and Alice McGlave as W.S. Gilbert and leading lady Mabel are tasked with more earnest roles to ground the antics and do fine work, as does the rest of the cast in matching the energy and physicality.

Music Director Denise Prosek smartly keeps the music of Pirates unadorned, with a simple trio accompaniment and occasional injections of horns along the way. The staging as a whole is simple and effective with warm lighting (by Michael P. Kittel), and a versatile set allows the show to fully shed its classical trappings and find an informal playfulness (by Ursula Bowden).

It is no small task to reconsider and reframe such an iconic operetta – surely Gilbert and Sullivan purists could object. However, this new adaptation is a joyful ode to the original, full of everything that made Pirates so beloved plus some modern commentary that brings the satirical spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan into the present day. It’s fresh, it’s delightful, and it’s our solemn duty to urge you to see it.

David and Chelsea Berglund review movies on their site Movie Matrimony.

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