There’s piracy aplenty in Goodspeed’s rousing and riotous adaptation of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta “The Pirates of Penzance,” as it boldly swindles songs, plunders archetypes and shamelessly steals from the mega-smash “The Pirates of the Caribbean.” It’s hardly the first time the 1870 period piece received a spirited or even radical makeover (most notable of them was the frolicsome early-’80s Broadway version starring Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt). But this adaptation goes further still, interpolating songs, slashing recitative, creating new text, revamping orchestrations and even (gasp!) tampering with lyrics. All this might cause apoplexy with G&S purists — for the rest of us, its jolly-roger good fun.
Under Gordon Greenberg’s delightful helming, fun is the operative word in a production that proudly sails the flag of comedy, often above its musical banner.
By shrugging off the corset of operetta and slipping into something more sassy, “Pirates” is dressed for a more free-wheeling party likely to attract a larger crowd. Working with Greenberg and musical supervisor John McDaniel, Nell Benjamin’s adaptation (she’s also co-composer/lyricist on Rialto-bound “Legally Blonde”) reconfigures the show into the template of musical comedy, resetting it into a more Pirate-friendly Caribbean, creating a more coherent plot (a curse from “Ruddigore” comes in handy) and overall making time for comedy. McDaniel matches eclectic spirit with a score that’s also loose, modern and even goes calypso for “Tarantara!”
Rest of creative team also gets playful. Warren Carlyle’s dances are quirky as well as energetic. Set designer Rob Bissinger has fun with the arriving pirate ship, with Mabel’s entrance in a winch-driven botanist basket and a tropical manse perfect for hiding marauders and cowards. (One only wishes the production more fully camouflaged Goodspeed’s Victoriana opera house, built about the same time “Penzance” preemed.)
The production’s only glitch is that Broadway musical comedies resonate best when they also have heart. Here only when the young lovers sing “Stay Frederic, Stay” does the show take time to linger and evoke genuine human realness. Then it’s quickly back to the mockery.
As the Pirate King, Andrew Varela seems to be dipped in Depp (black nail polish, permanently arched eyebrow and a twinkle as if he swallowed a Sparrow). His commanding delight is infectious and his singing equally assured. Ed Dixon mines every syllable, note and breath as the wonderfully blustery Major General. Joanna Glushak finds new highs in low comedy as the exceptionally lusty Ruth.
But there are also some terrific turns in places one least expects them. The gaggle of virginal maidens are hysterically loopy. Brightest surprise are the young ingenues, cast not for traditional good looks but more as good sports. Jason Michael Snow’s dutiful Frederic is a gawky, awkward, sweet-natured kid (with a dreamy voice) and Farah Alvin’s Mabel is far from the cupie-doll tradition, looking she bolted from a production of feminist comedy “On the Verge.” She even gets to be a bit wacky. (Watch how the performer’s eyes twitch when her ideas are summarily dismissed by her oblivious dad.)
The show, which has dropped its “the” from the title, will also lose “of Penzance” and gain an exclamation point when the production gets remounted in June at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. Though casting is not announced, it would be folly not to embrace this talented and off-beat crew who understand the spirit, the songs and the silliness in this very model of a modern major adaptation.