My usual complaint with Guthrie productions is that there's too much shouting happening onstage. Even quiet classics by Chekhov tend to be needlessly high volume and high energy. Perhaps the caffeinated aesthetic generally favored by Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling is the best argument for the theater to do more musicals. In their season ender, Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, all of that energy finds a more appropriate outlet, and the result is a fun, physical, and thoroughly modern show.
Dowling has updated the 125-year-old operetta while keeping it firmly anchored to its Victorian origins. To do this, he uses a pared- down orchestra and jubilant, energetic choreography. Michael Yeargan's sets are just suggestions, while Paul Tazewell's costumes-- Victorian lines in bright, modern colors--take over visually. And just enough modern-day asides--okay, maybe one too many--wake up the script, along with a local reference or two and a well-placed "uff da!"
Now, if one wanted to bring Pirates up to date, one could also center the whole thing around the U.S. Navy and make a big fuss out of the meaning of "duty" in today's troubled times. Thank goodness Dowling saw the folly of that and didn't try to make the show more than what it is: a fun, gentle satire with a cast of likable characters and a couple of unforgettable songs.
The show is, in fact, subtitled The Slave to Duty. Frederic (Dan Callaway) is a young apprentice pirate about to be released from his indenture. He has served his band of softhearted pirates up to this point out of a sense of duty, but the same noble sense calls him to seek to fight them as soon he is freed. Once on his own, he falls for the lovely Mabel (Jennifer Baldwin Peden) and helps free her sisters and her hapless father, General Stanley (Richard S. Iglewski, who lays it on thick in a Cowardly Lionish portrayal), from his former mates. The plot follows its wacky course from there, right up to a baffling scene tacked onto the finale. This appendage, which involves Queen Victoria (Barbara Bryne) descending onstage in a hot-air balloon and includes lyrical references to Tim Pawlenty, reminds us just what a great wordsmith Gilbert really was. Since he wasn't around to help out with this particular addition--Jeffrey Hatcher wrote the new material for this production--maybe the ending should have been left well enough alone.
Though Hatcher's extras don't always work, they are in the same big, goofy spirit that has imbued the cast, which has impressively mastered Gilbert's famously complex and catchy patter songs (say "I am the very model of a modern major general" five times fast. Okay, now try to stop saying it. I dare you.) With his Art Garfunkel grins and his Little Prince looks, Dan Callaway owns the stage as Frederic. He finds the right tone for musical- style romance without lapsing into the smarminess common to the form.
Mabel, Frederic's beloved, is allowed to be a strong, snappy, pirate-chasing young woman, instead of just a breathy romantic lead. Jennifer Baldwin Peden makes the most of the opportunity, flexing her muscles (literally) and milking some coloratura for well-deserved laughs.
But it's David Bolger's choreography that truly makes the show: He keeps the cast in constant motion, filling the Guthrie's thrust stage. His added flourishes, during and between songs, do nearly as much to flesh out the characters as the libretto--maybe more. Mabel's sisters in particular could have done nothing but twitter and twirl their parasols, but Bolger gives them smartly arranged vignettes that make them characters in their own right. And when the pirate king (Brian Sutherland, a large presence onstage, and a master of the quick aside) has a bit of trouble jumping up on a chest, we see that maybe he's getting a bit up there in age, or maybe he's not exactly a pirate to the manner born.
But mostly it's the sheer physicality and exuberance of the pirates (many of whom double as policemen) that is the greatest joy to watch. Tumbling, swinging, jumping, and grinning all the while, these guys earned whatever it is that Actors' Equity members get these days and then some. Maybe Dowling could work them into his next season's production of Death of a Salesman.