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Review: ‘Pirates’ At Play At Skirball

The Pirates of Penzance

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, December 8, 2017

The first snow of the season is predicted this weekend, and respite from the cold can be found at NYU Skirball Center for the few remaining performances of The Hypocrites’ summery version of The Pirates of Penzance. The audience gets to be part of the fun, seated entirely on stage, and if game, in and amongst the set, encouraged to move around at will, and to frequent the on-stage tiki bar.

This zany adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic 1879 operetta , one of the great satires of both Victorian politics and society (as well as of opera itself) has been performed by the Chicago theatre troupe The Hypocrites around the country since 2010. Sean Graney’s immersive production frees the piece from such traditional trappings as a proscenium and orchestra. It works surprisingly well. The amusing set and costume design conjure a veritable beach party, with plastic swimming pools, faux-Polynesian lamps, strings of lights, and bouncing beach balls. The cast greets the audience as they arrive in a pre-show warm-up setting the tone that we’re here to have fun!

The cast of The Hypocrites' 'Pirates of Penzance;' photo: Ian Douglas.

The cast of The Hypocrites’ ‘Pirates of Penzance;’ photo: Ian Douglas.

One of the central concepts here is that the cast accompanies themselves “John Doyle style,” on a motley assortment of instruments such as guitar, accordion, fiddle, a discordant hand organ (to hilarious effect), and even a musical saw. The effect is to add an immediacy to the whimsical narrative, here whittled down to 80 minutes (with a one-minute intermission). It’s particularly impressive how well many in the cast of ten played their instruments, and music director Andra Velis Simon has arranged the “orchestration” so that the music feels fully rendered, and this conductorless performance of the score flows quite well.

The plot centers on the pirate apprentice Frederic, here called Freddy, in a tour-de-force performance by Shawn Pfautsch, and his indentureship to the operetta’s namesake band of pirates. In a timeless sendup of nineteenth century operatic tropes, hilarity ensues through a series of mix ups and absurd coincidences. Matt Kahler, as the Major-General nailed the famous patter song, “I am the very model of a modern Major-General…” Robert McLean, as the Pirate King and Sgt. of Police, sang with a less operatic sound, but the entire cast was dramatically in the same show, and the expert direction of Graney emphasized style and pacing.

(l. to r.) Shawn Pfautsch and Christine Stulik in The Hypocrites' 'Pirates of Penzance;' photo: Ian Douglas.

(l. to r.) Shawn Pfautsch and Christine Stulik in The Hypocrites’ ‘Pirates of Penzance;’ photo: Ian Douglas.

But the real stand-out performance here is by Christine Stulik who plays the piece’s opposing female leads, Ruth, the pirates’ homely maid, and the only woman Freddy has ever known (he regards her as beautiful, but the more worldly pirates know better), and Mabel, one of the Major-General’s daughters, with whom Freddy falls in love. With vocal virtuosity and versatility, Stulik gives a fearless, genuinely comedic performance.

Especially important to the atmosphere, as always, is the lighting design, and Heather Gilbert’s lighting here lent a special magic. The strings of lights overhead unexpectedly shifted the tone in moments that reminded the beachgoers that they were in a theatre. The droll costume design, part Prohibition-era Coney Island, part Margaritaville, were by Alison Siple.

Purists are welcome to sulk, but Graney and his partying Hypocrites, replete with sunglasses and Hawaiian shirts, have transformed Gilbert and Sullivan’s masterpiece into a heart-warming, laugh-riot of a romp. But, it might be wise to belly up to the bar beforehand to get into the spirit of things.

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The Pirates of Penzance presented by The Hypocrites at the Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place, NYU Campus, November 29 through December 10, 2017. Libretto by W.S. Gilbert; Music by Arthur Sullivan. Directed and adapted by Sean Graney; co-adapted by Kevin O’Donnell; music direction by Andra Velis Simon; choreography by Katie Spelman; scenic design by Tom Burch; properties design by Maria DeFabo; lighting design by Heather Gilbert; sound design by Kevin O’Donnell; costume design by Alison Siple. Cast: Shawn Pfautsch, Matt Kahler, Rob McLean, Tina Munoz-Pandya, Amanda Martinez, Dana Omar, Christine Stulik, Emily Casey, Mario Aivazian, Danny Goodman.

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Cover: Matt Kahler and cast in The Hypocrites’ ‘Pirates of Penzanze;’ photo: Ian Douglas.


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