Even sliced, diced and tricked up in contemporary horsefeathers, the 1879 Gilbert & Sullivan operetta still charms the pants off an audience — especially when that audience has to crawl around on its hands and knees to follow the action of the show in its spectacular setting: the open deck of the Peking, a majestic four-masted barque moored at the South Street Seaport.
This anarchic romp, which plunders pop culture for the substance and styles of its broad humor, may not be slick or sophisticated enough for a standard transfer, but it’s disarming enough to make a life for itself on the Mississippi, playing casino ships from St. Louis to New Orleans.
You can still make out Sullivan’s original melodies in the breezy idiom of Steven Gross’ irreverent musical adaptation, which ricochets from rock and pop to blues, gospel, boogie-woogie, rap, rumba, Broadway and … a hora? Remnants also survive, in Michael Scheman’s overhauled book, of G&S’ droll story of a pirate lad whose sense of duty conflicts with his yearning to marry a nice girl and change his line of work — although Gilbert’s pointed lyrics are pretty much scuttled for hit-and-miss jokes about anything and everything, from Kosovo to Kevin Kline.
Granted, anything and everything seems funnier when Martin Van Treuren is on deck. Whether he’s in full military swagger as the clueless Major General or flouncing around in drag as the manhunting nursemaid Ruth, this canny pro grabs the stage simply by enunciating his lines with the toothy relish of a gourmet who finds these plump words on his plate very tasty indeed. (Would that the fast-feeders in the chorus had picked up on this refined verbal taste.) But by and large, the wit of the updated lyrics is more technical than topical, with even the cleverest rhyme schemes wasted on shopworn subjects such as Madonna and Ivana Trump.
Unlike his free-range roasting of book and lyrics, Scheman’s staging is pulled together by a showbiz focus. Sometimes the ideas (like turning the Major General’s virginal daughters into a hirsute chorus line of Britney Spears cheerleaders) outstrip their execution. But the discipline pays off when “With Catlike Tread” becomes a tight dance-drill, a la “Lord of the Dance” and “Riverdance,” and “Stay, Frederic, Stay” turns into a quasi-operatic “Aida” parody. It also pays off wherever drillmaster Tony Parise sees fit to choreograph his delicious sendups of showbiz totems like “Rent,” “Cats,” “Phantom” and “A Chorus Line.”
Happily, the principals are up to the taxing vocal and physical demands of such spoofing. Along with the versatile Van Treuren, Jonathan Brody, a Broadway dancer with lithe, sure moves, makes an athletic Pirate King, and Colin Hanlon’s angelic face and sweet tenor are just the ticket for dopey Frederic. But the real treasure on this pirate ship is Montego Glover, a young unknown whose supple dancing, expressive voice and saucy smile make her a delectably modern Mabel. Somebody grab this child quick.