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REVIEW: New Twist on The Pirates of Penzance (Park Square Theatre)

Christina Baldwin (center) as the Major General in Park Square Theatre’s The Pirates of Penzance. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

Park Square Theatre’s current production of The Pirates of Penzance is a refreshing spin on the classic comic opera. This comic opera with music by Arthur Sullivan and lyrics by W.S. Gilbert premiered in New York City in 1879. Having the world premiere in the United States was part of a vain attempt to stop American companies from pirating the work. The work has been performed more or less constantly ever since, remaining one of most popular of Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s operas.

Pirates is no stranger to the Twin Cities, with productions at the Guthrie and (more recently) the Ordway, among others. Now that the work is in the public domain, countless changes are made in different productions. This particular adaption was developed by Doug Scholz-Carlson (director), Bradley Greenwald (the roles of Arthur Sullivan/Pirate King), Christina Baldwin (the roles of producer Helen Lenoir/Major General/Sergeant of Police), Sophie Peyton (assistant director), and the Cast.  The result is an exceedingly witty and hilarious retelling of this vintage story.

Three Little Maids, Pirates and Associate, and a Major General who May Be Modern. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

This production places four real-life figures from G&S history onstage: Sullivan, Gilbert, Helen Lenoir (business manager for the opera comedy), and Blanch Roosevelt (who played the heroine Mable in the first Pirates production). Their added narrative is based on true events, telling the tale of how Gilbert and Sullivan put their production together during the Atlantic voyage from Britain to New York City. This play-within-a-play framing works exceedingly well as it deals with the fact that Sullivan left much of the original music back in Britain and he had to rewrite his musical score. Sullivan and Gilbert from the exterior play work on the rewrite while rehearsing the show with their cast; the two co-creators and their business manager Helen Lenore then also play characters in the opera. The rehearsals for the interior play include running gags about Americans pirating the earlier HMS Pinafore, repeated references to the second-class status of women, and a few not-so-veiled jabs at President Trump.

Although a 9-member cast for Pirates seems almost unthinkable – the celebrated production by Chicago-based The Hypocrites requires 10 – Park Square’s accomplished cast does extremely well with this number. Christina Baldwin as the business manager Lenoir is an absolute delight, both with her women’s liberation quips and her sound business judgment.  Her repeated renditions of “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” are also quite impressive as she delivers the song multiple times at rapidly increasing speeds. (Baldwin also takes on the comic role of the Sergeant of Police.)

The cast of Park Square Theatre’s The Pirates of Penzance hoist a sail. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

Bradley Greenwald does a marvelous job in the prime roles of Arthur Sullivan, who repeatedly interjects witty asides, and the Pirate King. Zach Garcia is impressive as the stalwart W. S. Gilbert, and also plays a handful of supporting characters in the opera. Max Wojtanowicz plays the much-panned actor Hugh Talbot, who seems miscast as the youthful Frederick but who manages to steal many scenes. Alice McGlave plays both a gutsy Mabel and a spunky Blanche Roosevelt – the actress who plays Mabel – in the exterior play. McGlave’s exceptional singing talents are showcased in solos such as “Oh, Dry the Glist’ning Tear.”

Musical director Denise Prosek and music conductor Andrew Fleser do a superb job of weaving in the music, especially when the music takes a backseat to the exceptionally witty dialogue in this production. Ursula Bowden’s scenic design uses a backdrop that is easily converted from the cargo hold of a ship, to a cove, a family tomb and a pirate’s ship. (The scenery also manages to drop in a few jokes regarding “duty.”)  Michael P. Kittel’s lighting design moves freely with the set changes.

This is a splendid show. Even those who have never seen Pirates as it is traditionally staged should enjoy this production. It also provides excellent motivation to attend a more traditional rendition of Pirates.

The Pirates of Penzance plays through March 25 at Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage in St. Paul, MN.




Bev Wolfe