One hundred and thirty-two years after W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan dreamed up a preposterous operetta involving a very modern major-general, his bevy of beautiful, naive daughters and a dutiful young Englishman apprenticed to a band of big-hearted buccaneers headquartered in Cornwall, "The Pirates of Penzance" has become a remarkably pliant concoction. It can be performed with care and affection by light opera companies and parodied by Chicago satirists like The Hypocrites (who soon will be taking their recent hip, off-Loop adaptation to New York). And, more than any other Gilbert and Sullivan confection, it stands up remarkably well as a Broadway-style musical comedy.
It's that latter approach that the ever-savvy director Dominic Missimi takes for his enjoyable, freewheeling, relaxed, cheerfully self-aware current production at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. Missimi sticks Gilbert and Sullivan in the round (being long dead, they neither kick nor scream), happily embraces anachronism — including rapping English coppers and a new set of funny lyrics for being the very model of the modern major-general — and has one toe in the waters of Mel Brooks and at least three fingers in the world of the Pythonesque. Fair enough. Had he lived, no doubt Gilbert would have appreciated "Spamalot."
But Missimi is also smart enough to know that "Pirates" gives you the chance to contrast all that jollity with the beauty of Sullivan's melodies during such sequences as the Act 1 finale, which has the less-than-snappy title of "Oh, Men of Dark and Dismal Fate" but has the kind of melody few modern composers can emulate. The relatively small orchestra at the Marriott, which the design of the theater requires to be mixed electronically, certainly can't compete with the full orchestras one sometimes hears playing this score. So Missimi and his musical director, Ryan T. Nelson, have come up with the idea of creating some a cappella moments that allow this capable cast to show off its formidable collective vocal chops and fill the circular joint with juicy Victorian harmonies.
They're pleasing indeed, as are the legit voices of Omar Lopez-Cepero, who appeared on Broadway in "American Idiot" and now plays Frederic, and Patricia Noonan, who warbles cheerfully as Mabel.
Whenever I see "Pirates," I'm reminded of the crucial role played in ongoing creativity by the matter of public domain. Gilbert and Sullivan had the misfortune (for them) but for the good fortune (for us) of becoming famous before musical theaters and corporate brands merged, and various high-paid lawyers started seeing to it that no one would do to any melody what the owner of that tune would not want done. Thus you can play around with "Pirates" to your heart's content, and this has helped keep the show fresh and alive.
There are no wild surprises nor breathtaking visual centerpieces (design elements are within the usual palette), but this well-paced, fast-moving Marriott "Pirates" is inventive and entertaining, with Alene Robertson yukking it up deliciously as Ruth and Broadway's Kevin Earley flinging his sword about as the potent but genial Pirate King.
Ross Lehman, who plays the Major-General, doesn't always audibly spit out every syllable of the famous patter songs (I suspect he'll get there during the voyage), but he's certainly lively, present and hilarious. The only element of the show that didn't fire on all cylinders opening night was the wacky police force, proto-Chaplin figures known throughout musical-theater history for their taratantaras.
Part of the problem Friday night was that Sgt. Andrew Lupp's mic went out, but the gents are also a tad over-choreographed by Matt Raftery. Still, a little sequence parodying the way the Radio City Rockettes do their toy-soldier collapse is a hoot. And from "With Cat-Like Tread" on home (those titles, those titles!), the show finds a deft nautical bounce. Orphan pirates know how to help you forget the cares of the week.
When: Through June 10
Where: Marriott Theatre, 100 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $41-49 at 847-634-0200 or marriotttheatre.com