AISLE SAY Berkshires

The Pirates of Penzance

by Gilbert & Sullivan
(as produced originally by the New York Shakespeare Theatre)
Directed by John Rando
featuring Jane Carr, David Garrison, Kyle Dean Massey
Scarlett Strallen, Will Swenson

at Barrington Stage Company (Boyd-Quinson Mainstage)
until August 13; 413-236-8888


Reviewed by Joel Greenberg


The Pirates of Penzance have landed on Barrington Stage, in Pittsfield, and make no mistake – they mean business and they won’t clear out until they’re good and ready. Let that be your warning to get tickets, lots of them, and play nice. Though since it’s the world of Gilbert & Sullivan, there’s probably no advisory required, except to say that you better prepare yourselves for a very, very good time!
The fabled operetta about a Pirate King, an innocent young man (Frederic) and the dazzling young lass (Mabel) plays very loose with dramatic structure and much larger with satiric wit and barbs aimed at then-familiar institutions and attitudes. In the early 1980’s, Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival produced their ‘new’ version of the piece to great acclaim and a substantial Broadway run followed. Always astute, Papp cast the show with a young Kevin Kline and added marquee luster by including Rex Smith, then a teen heartthrob and teen magazine pin-up favourite, and Linda Ronstadt.
In 2016, we have less marquee dazzle, perhaps, but the company assembled has to be among the very best that Barrington Stage has ever gathered for a single project. And the cast of twenty-two, accompanied by an orchestra of eight members, is yet another example of how BSC speeds along in their development and we do our best to keep up. The opening night audience was ready to welcome this new mainstage production, but no more than the onstage company itself. The theatre has been slightly immersed in the action of the operetta and the opening sequence confirmed that we would be actively engaged throughout: the pre-show warning to keep the aisles clear at all times is not an obligatory nod.
Direction by John Rando, musical direction by Darren R. Cohen and choreography by Joshua Bergasse complements all aspects of the piece and demonstrates what is possible when the whole is meant to be greater than its component parts, not that any single element is wanting. The playing style is aggressively shtick-laden, so much so that there is a second act fatigue factor that sets in before the final curtain. Perhaps it is a matter of trying too hard at the beginning and being unable to fully sustain the two-plus hours. Perhaps it is the challenge of working with so full a score and, with only a couple of exceptions, aiming to find great humour in every passage. I did enjoy the quiet ballads and the audience enjoyed having time to breathe and simply admire the singers’ skills. Scarlett Strallen and Kyle Dean Massey, as Mabel and Frederic, brought warmth and grace to their solos and duets. The abrupt shifts from tender to ribald lack connective tissue, though that may evolve as the run proceeds.
Will Swenson, as the Pirate King, is the engine of the production and he hurls himself into every moment he has onstage. His many skills are an absolute asset to the spirit of the show. “Oh, Better Far to Live and Die”, his opening number, lets you know that you’ll be in very able hands throughout the performance. His brashness is strengthened by his warmth and lack of ego – in a role that is unsparingly self-serving and self-centered, it’s doubly effective when the actor isn’t cashing in on either of those traits.
Alex Gibson, as the Police, brings the perfect balance to the style and tone that the production is aiming to achieve. He is less emphatic in his playing, though he misses nothing in the process. His physical dexterity is impressive and his comedy is quietly and assuredly confident. The role is a natural for winning over the audience, but when the performer meets the potential of the role, as Gibson does here, the audience holds nothing back and waits for more.
Minor caveats: the patter songs are faster than the performers can happily manage, aside from Swenson’s brief reprise in the second act; the female ensemble numbers are more shrill than pleasant and the lyrics are often lost. Very minor caveats.
Go to see The Pirates of Penzance. Bring your friends. Bring your kids and grandkids. And anyone else who needs to have a great, good time.  

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