Pirate King Sing-Along

There isn't much rum and no lash in Shakespeare Orange County's The Pirates of Penzance. But there's plenty of sodomy, if the host of swishy, preening pirates cavorting across the stage is any indication. But it's all in good fun in this energetic, if occasionally problematic, staging by Peter Uribe, the first musical in the twentysomething-year history of Shakespeare Orange County (SOC).

It's also the silliest production in its tenure. Last year, the troupe was taken over by John Walcutt, and in his second season, he has transformed what was long a producer of high-brow Shakespeare into a much more diversified outfit. SOC has aggressively reached out to the community, staging a Polynesian-themed A Midsummer Night's Dream last year and a cross-cultural Romeo and Juliet this year, as well as balancing its Shakespearean repertoire with productions such as George M. Cohan's American masterwork The Tavern and this 1879 Gilbert N Sullivan comic opera.

The results? As Walcutt told the audience before the show one recent night, from 2004 to 2013, SOC averaged 2,800 guests each summer. Last year, 5,000 people attended. This year, 5,000 people alone saw Romeo and Juliet, and, he estimates that 8,500 will have plopped their derrieres into the Festival Amphitheatre by summer's end.

Some part of that success is thanks to enormous casts, including many teenagers and younger performers. Romeo and Juliet must have had 40 people in it, and Pirates offers 25. But while there is a gaggle of young, exuberant actors onstage, some of whom are quite steady and others not yet ready for prime time, all of SOC's shows, as they were when under the helm of Tom Bradac, are anchored by solid actors in the main roles.

This time around, it's Nikolai Fernandez as Frederic, the love-struck former pirate trying to assimilate into more reputable society, and Alex Bordero as the quick-witted and hapless Pirate King who's trying to lure him back. Along with some key supporting characters, they're usually enough to carry the show, although some of the bigger numbers, particularly when the chorus of daughters are the focus, unravel into a fustercluck.

Although SOC had added chairs onto the stage, creating a more intimate space, it's still difficult to hear many of the performers, primarily because it is a 19th-century light opera, and anyone who has seen a more traditional mounting of this show knows how even trained professionals can wrestle with the songs in the upper vocal register. And even though Uribe has apparently taken a note from the free-wheeling Joseph Papp production in the late 1970s that re-invigorated interest in Pirates (and resulted in the 1983 film version), by directing his cast to communicate rather than opera-ate, some are simply outmatched by the material.

The most recognizable number in his show, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” (think Tom Lehrer's “The Elements”), isn't a tough one to hit tonally, but the intense tempo and rapid-fire delivery make it a bitch to tackle. When done well, it's a virtuosic performance. Unfortunately, while Louis B. Jack gives it his best shot, he often seemed a few syllables behind the recorded soundtrack.

If you know the musical, it's a minor blip. And considering how often this show is produced, from high schools to national tours, it's difficult to not have some familiarity with it. Again, Uribe seems heavily indebted to the Papp production, which was a far looser, broader take, with its swashbuckling pirates, cheeky humor and frequent audience interaction. Uribe ups that ante, making his pirates equal-opportunity lechers (as much as they caress and cling to one another, the moment women make an appearance, their libidos are redirected) and giving his cast free rein to ad-lib and ham it up.

That wouldn't work in most shows. But this is such a ridiculous affair to begin with (the plot is flimsy, the conflict absurd, the climax as shoehorned as you can imagine) that it feels fine. Uribe is aware of how this complicated musical show is also so dumb. For evidence, consider his ending. Though the show premiered in New York in 1879, Gilbert N Sullivan were artists when Queen Victoria ruled the largest empire the Earth had ever seen. So it's wholly British, usually ending with the queen appearing in classic deus ex machina fashion and everyone bowing in homage. This time around, her royal highness' portrait descends along the back wall to Britain's national anthem, “God Save the Queen.” Well, a few bars play before cutting into a far punkier song with the same name, a kind of not-so-subtle gesture on Uribe's part to turn that 19th-century wink to God and queen into more of a black eye.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *