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Swash is comically buckled in Toby's 'Pirates of Penzance' [Review]

Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance" was originally staged in 1879, but its melodious score and satirical spirit make it seem fresh today. That's why this Victorian-era British operetta works so well at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, where contemporary Broadway musicals are the norm.

It helps that this streamlined version of "The Pirates of Penzance," which was first staged by New York producer Joseph Papp in 1980, does a fine job of making a piece of 19th-century musical theater flow like a modern musical.

The lively Toby's production benefits from some first-rate singing, and also from an awareness that really extroverted comic acting is the best way to handle the supremely silly story. It's best to perform this nonsense with gusto.

As for that convoluted story, it's essentially about a 21-year-old man, Frederic, who is reaching what he assumes is the end of his apprenticeship with the titular pirates of Penzance. He's inclined to break away from this criminal family ruled by the Pirate King and live a more respectable life, but various absurd biographical revelations will complicate his decision.

Some of these revelations adhere to the middle-aged, large-framed nurse who has raised him, Ruth, including the fact that she secretly loves him and would like to become his wife. Owing to his pirate cove upbringing, Ruth is the only woman Frederic has ever seen and so he's not sure if she is a beautiful example of womanhood.

That all changes dramatically, to use that term loosely, when Frederic encounters the 10 lovely young women who are wards of the pompous Major-General Stanley. Among all of these maidens ripe for marriage, Frederic falls head over heels in love with Mabel. Do you sense an amorous duet about to be sung?

The real strength of this production overseen by director and choreographer Mark Minnick is in the voices that remain lyrically gorgeous amid the most ridiculous of plot complications.

As Mabel, Laura Whittenberger turns her classically trained voice to wonderful advantage. After all, the operetta genre amounts to being the casual cousin of grand opera.

Whittenberger's voice securely soars in such musical numbers as "Poor Wandering One!" and "Stay, Frederic, Stay!" She makes the exclamation points in those song titles seem warranted.

Besides Whittenberger's impressive voice, this Ellicott City native making her Toby's debut possesses the pretty features to make it entirely understandable why Frederic loves Mabel.

As Frederic, Nick Lehan is consistently convincing with both his singing and acting. The characters in such operettas often verge on being caricatures, but Lehan invests Frederic with enough substance to make us care about this character's existential plight.

Although Frederic retains our sympathy as a troubled young hero, the audience can't be blamed for wanting to side with David Jennings as this production's Pirate King. He cuts a dashing figure as he swaggers around the stage. Vocally, Jennings is so authoritative that he makes you believe everything he is singing in "Oh, Better Far to Live and Die."

Others in the cast include Jane C. Boyle expertly indulging in Ruth's sitcom-level traits; and Robert John Biedermann 125 capably embodying the military uniform-defined Major-General Stanley, although Biedermann needs to enunciate more clearly during the admittedly fast patter of "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General."

The large supporting cast is a lot of fun to watch. There are maidens flirtatiously swirling in Victorian gowns, pirates swinging from ropes and eventually wrapping those ropes around the maidens-turned-prisoners, and baton-wielding British policemen who look like they could have gone to early Hollywood and made a Mack Sennett slapstick comedy.

Although the orchestra under conductor Ross Scott Rawlings keeps things moving along at an agreeably swift pace, the live music generally has a mechanical feeling. It needs a fuller sound and, more specifically, the addition of strings to bring out the orchestral lushness that is so important in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

"The Pirates of Penzance" runs through Aug. 31 at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia. Tickets are $37.50- $56. Call 410-730-8311 or go to http://www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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