‘Pirates’ invade the Skylight
The Pirates of Penzance
May 22 – Jun 14, 2009
Performed by the Skylight Opera
at the Broadway Theatre Center
Written by Gilbert and Sullivan,
Dir. by Bill Theisen
Running time: 135 min. (with intermission)
A hilarious reach for the pinnacle of musical ridiculousness, Milwaukee’s latest production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance fully engages its audience’s satirical sensibilities. Whimsically adapted by the Skylight Opera, this production is less a straightforward rendering of the classic comic opera and more a snapshot taken with a hall of mirrors lens.
To be clear: the production is colorfully funny, the songs sung mellifluously, and the comic acting energetic. But something’s intentionally off-kilter. The staging, especially, pushes even the existing boundaries of extreme satire with a broad, brush-stroke-side-swipe style that provides the perfect setting for the “story” itself.
As the curtain rises, we see an intentionally unrealistic rocky coast that looks like a picnic site, complete with picnic table and a rusted can that reads ‘rubbish’ on the side. Upstage, there’s an obnoxious out-of-place yellow railing leading off stage. The backdrop is not the ocean scene one might expect, but rather an off-center framed picture of an ocean scene. The proscenium is lined with a picture frame of its own; the designer has gone a step further and set this askew as well, suggesting not only a satirical look in, but a literally crooked one.
From the acting and musical performances to the choreography and afore-mentioned set, nothing fits into conventional ideas about a “typical” theatrical engagement. Each element serves toward the creation of overall conceptual strength and modern audience appeal.
To explain Gilbert and Sullivan’s tale of piracy is akin to telling the story of a child’s birthday party. The plot is, well, in need of a plot. Frederic is a newly graduated pirate who leaves his pirate family and immediately finds the love of his life. He is swindled into returning to the pirate clan, engages in a mock fight between pirates and police, and in the end happiness and joy abound. It’s the kind of senseless story still employed today in films like Scary Movie and Austin Powers. But unlike those puerile distractions, Pirates has a respected style and an ironclad longevity. Indeed, the show has now been tickling audiences for 130 years.
Musical highlights of the Skylight’s production include “Stop, Ladies, Pray”, a whimsically choreographed number that features a group of sisters hopping around on single shoeless feet while fending off Frederic’s amorous pursuits. The funniest and most well-known song of the show is the rapid-rhyming “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” It’s perfectly punctuated at the end by Major-General Stanley’s line “Now that I’ve introduced myself…”
The Pirates of Penzance is exceptionally and humorously paced by The Skylight’s Artistic Director Bill Theisen, and perfectly designed by Peter Dean Beck. The ensemble cast works expertly together to engage the audience — milking the script for every possible quip.