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Rollicking fun carries 'Penzance' to Toby's stage

Musical TheaterDavid JamesCentral Park

Summer family fun is now served at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia in the form of Gilbert and Sullivan's ever-popular musical "The Pirates of Penzance," delivered by a lively cast of eager lads, comic swashbucklers and bumbling bobbies — along with exuberant, lissome lasses.

Toby's delivers a scintillating production in its in-the-round venue. Contributing to the overall brilliance are talents onstage and off, including leading and ensemble players and a skilled technical crew.

Director and choreographer Mark Minnick draws multilayered comic performances from his cast, moving the mounting fun at an increasingly lively pace. The action is enhanced by Minnick's choreographic artistry, offering a dazzling array of dance routines to lend enchanting variety.

Toby's set designer David A. Hopkins creates a breathtaking opening scene, complete with fantastic pirate ship set amid white-capped waves, the vessel created with rope rigging soaring upward. Later this scene smoothly transforms to replace the ship with an island — complete with town square and working fountain.

Costume designer Eleanor B. Dicks creates dashing pirate costumes, especially for the Pirate King, who defines a swashbuckling leader, complete with leather vest and boots. Young hero Frederic is given a costume that reflects his own considerable dash, and the Major General's seven daughters go from frolicking in red romper costumes to later appearing in elegant full-skirted pastel gowns.

Toby's "Penzance" is the updated 1980 Central Park production that first captivated New York audiences and continued to enchant during its subsequent Broadway run. The show features a reinvigorated Major General, a comically swashbuckling Pirate King and a dashing Frederic, with love interest Mabel and an updated Nurse Ruth — showing that these characters need only minor tweaking 35 years later to beguile audiences.

Toby's production boasts an amiable, comically bumbling Major-General, portrayed by Robert John Biedermann, who delivers his signature "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" with distinction — enunciating clearly and neatly delivering the rapid patter and deftly repeating verses even more rapidly.

Biedermann, who perfectly fits the role physically, wears the elaborate costumes with flair and flourish. His Major-General is convincing in his concern for his daughters and is comical in exchanges with policemen and in his exchanges with the Pirate King.

As the Sergeant of Police, David James steals every scene he graces, leading his men in song and dance in several numbers, most amusingly in "When a Felon's not Engaged in His Employment" and "A Rollicking Band of Pirates We." James brings zest to every song and zip to every dance, especially when he leads his battalion in a routine that marks a comic high point.

David Jennings is a triple threat as the swashbuckling Pirate King, who is handsome in his pirate garb, sings impressively in "My Eyes are Fully Open" with Ruth and Frederic, and is an accomplished dancer of notable athleticism capable of soaring leaps. He also proves to be a skilled swordsman — all delivered with superb comic flair.

His second-in-command, Samuel, is zestfully played by Jeffrey Shankle.

Another fine singer who also has his own dash is Nick Lehan as Frederic, the young pirate apprenticed by nursemaid Ruth, and now freed from his indenture to discover the world beyond the pirate ship. Frederic soon discovers the Major-General's daughter Mabel, whom he instantly loves.

Making her Toby's debut as Mabel, Laura Whittenberger seems ideally cast and displays the finest operatic voice heard in recent memory at Toby's. She is also fully credible as the lovely Mabel, doing wonders for her every costume. As listed in her program bio, Whittenberger has an impressive list of opera credits, which explains how she negotiates coloratura passages with ease and agility.

Two other energetic standouts are Coby Kay Callahan as sisters Edith and Tina Marie DeSimone as Kate.

Also possessing an impressive voice, Jane C. Boyle, who according to her program bio "first graced Toby's stage in 'Pirates' in 1990" is now the scorned woman Ruth. With ferocity and vocal clout, she easily holds her own with Lehan's Frederic and Jennings' Pirate King in "My Eyes Are Fully Open," and she rises to dramatic heights with in "Oh, False One," a duet with Frederic.

"The Pirates of Penzance" continues through Aug. 31 at Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia. Call the box office at 301-596-6161 to order tickets.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Musical TheaterDavid JamesCentral Park
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