“The Pirates of Penzance” ,an operetta written by Gilbert & Sullivan (W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan) and produced for the first time in 1879, has blazed through Broadway, major musical theaters around the world and countless American high schools for nearly a century and half.
And for good reason.
Despite its inherent misogyny and allusions to a non-humorous circumstance (indentured servitude), it’s rip-roaring good fun when staged with enthusiasm and enough imagination to speak to current times.
And that is exactly the staging offered by the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society show running through July 31 at Bagley Wright Theatre near Seattle Center. The Society’s new “Pirates” is a colorful, playful romp with outstanding singing and a whole lot of silliness. With a cohesive ensemble of players, this “Pirates” rolls adroitly along from start to finish.
Older kids will find the story (and the history it reflects) funny and interesting, younger ones will thrill to the colors, costumes and all-around energy of hilarity.
“I was 11 when I first saw ‘Pirates,’” says Catherine Weatbrook, the society’s president and back-stage Jacqueline of all trades. “The show deeply ingrained lyric theater into my heart.”
Here’s story in nine points:
- The once-indentured pirate Frederic is released from his service on his 21st birthday.
- He sets off to rid the world of pirates out of his guilt for having pillaged as one himself.
- Frederic meets Mabel – and her many sisters.
- The sisters meet the pirates, who attempt to marry them by force.
- Their father intervenes with a fib to win their freedom.
- Frederic learns he was a Leap Year baby, born Feb. 29, and thus, technically, has only reached his fifth birthday. His fierce call of duty returns him to pirating.
- The police bumble at their work.
- The lie is revealed, the father repents, the pirates are POOF! turned into noblemen and the sisters suddenly find them appealing
- Thus, everyone is paired off into a happy ending.
Stepping away from stereotype
Between points 1 and 9 expect two hours of fast-paced singing, quite a bit of heart-shaped sighing, frequent big-eyed expressions and some quaint moments of bewilderment. Unlike Hollywood movie versions, this band of “Pirates” does not buy into always cisgendered and evil pirate stereotypes. Instead it reflects a more open, accepting and genteel reality of love and empathy. These pirates cry when they hear a sad sob story.
It is unfortunate that this cast is not more diverse, although three cheers for Antonio D. Mitchell in the role of the Pirate King. I found a black actor in this role to be an welcome twist for a show that has, as a central theme, indenturing which is a form of slavery. Nathanael Fleming as the newly freed Frederic, Anna Galavis as the beloved Mabel and Dawn Padula as Ruth the Pirate Maid is sensational and will be an inspiration to any of your musical-ly inclined students.
Fodder for family discussion
For adolescents and parents seeing “Pirates” for the first time, it’s good to know the operetta is a satire. It pokes fun at the aristocratic times in which it was written – the disenfranchisement and the diminishing of orphans or outcasts as well as a moral code anchored in “duty” that those times championed. It’s a parody of the nobility and the deity-like worship of the Queen of England. A parent-adolescent post-play discussion of the show might find interesting parallels to our times.
“Pirates has many layers,” says Weatbrook.
The magic of musical theater
For younger kids — say late elementary and middle schoolers – “Pirates” will likely be less lofty. It’s an invitation into a magical world, with intricate costumes, silly antics, catchy tunes and laughable physical comedy.
“Everywhere you look, there’s something different,” Weatbrook says.
Weatbrook says she is proud to help the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society bring the current production to the stage – and that it’s part of her own full circle turn with the theater.
“It was this company that produced that show decades ago, and I’m immensely proud to be here bringing it back for another generation to experience the magic,” she says.
“Maybe some will develop the love of the theatre that I have.”
This reviewer agrees. If my kids were still in late elementary, middle or high school, I’d put it on our outing list and look forward to any conversation it inspired.