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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Review of PIRATES OF PENZANCE at Seattle's 5th Ave Theatre

The Pirates of Penzance is running at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, until August 4, and if you’ve never seen this work by Gilbert & Sullivan, just knowing it has remained popular since its premier in 1879 is reason enough to be intrigued.
The Pirates of Penzance at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Credit Mark Kitaoka
 That’s 134 years of continuously drawing audiences. Originally called a “comic opera,” and considered the forerunner of musical theater, it is historically significant and worth seeing for that reason alone. And even if you have, already seen it a dozen times, this is new production, full of surprises. Set in the Victorian era, like the original, this one is physically set in British Columbia. The authority of law is represented by Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Although the view of what seemed to be Mount Rainier, in the background, looked like it would from Tacoma, the shoreline could have been Vancouver Island, B.C.

The Sergeant of Police (Jared Michael Brown, center) is the leader of a brigade of Canadian Mounties in The Pirates of Penzance 
at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Credit Tracy Martin
Watching the show last Friday night, I found much to appreciate, admire, and enjoy, and I recommend it for many good reasons. But before seeing it, I had my doubts because of the silliness factor. Maybe I’m too serious, but I like art to inspire reflection. It’s hard to look too deeply into something that appears so shallow, yet this classic does contain timeless observations about human society and the conflicts and contradictions still as present in our modern lives as in those of its characters. And it's certainly highly entertaining.
(l-r) Frederic (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka) and Ruth (Anne Allgood) in The Pirates of Penzance at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Credit Tracy Martin
For those who are unfamiliar with Pirates, the backstory concerns a boy having been orphaned and then being unintentionally indentured to a band of pirates through a misunderstanding on the part of his nursemaid, Ruth. One of my 5th Avenue favorites, Anne Allgood, a veteran of Broadway, starred in this role. The story begins when the boy, Fredericplayed by Broadway star Hunter Ryan Herdlicka—reaches manhood and has fulfilled his obligation to the pirates. He then decides to leave them, and the isolated existence he’s known, to experience a normal life and meet young women. The only woman he has supposedly ever seen is his much older nursemaid Ruth. He also faces a moral conflict; he knows that the pirates who have been like family to him are actually criminals.
Brandon O'Neill as the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Credit Tracy Martin
Other significant characters are the pirate King—so perfectly portrayed by the dashing and talented Brandon O’Neill—and the Major General, played by David Pichette, who also did a great job in his role. The Major General's  daughter, Mabel, is Frederic’s love interest, with Anne Eisendrath starring in that role with ease. In addition to having the daughter Mabel, the Major General has adopted, or at least provided a home for, many other young women who call him “father." Conveniently, there are as many of them as there are available pirates. And those pirates, whose real identities will later be revealed, are much more soft-hearted than menacing. But remember, this is all a farce.
David Pichette, as Major General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance at The 5th Avenue Theatre
Credit Mark Kitaoka
The story includes conflicts between age and youth, crime and the law, male and female, sexual passions and Victorian restraint, social status and lack of it, societal restrictions versus freedom of choice, and more. But the overriding conflict revolves around duty versus personal desire, with young Frederic at the center of that. His way of dealing with that conflict is, of course, totally outlandish, but so is everything else about The Pirates of Penzance.

Silly as it is, this show is also a lot of fun. Part of the fun comes from trying to catch all the little details. I think you could watch it ten times and still not see everything. On the drive home, my companion for the evening mentioned several funny things I’d missed. For example, there’s a pirate who goes around with a fake parrot on his shoulder, and when an equally fake Canada goose lost its head to the swipe of a sword (no blood involved) the pirate covered the parrot's eyes against such violence.

(l-r) Frederic (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka) and Mabel (Anne Eisendrath) in The Pirates of Penzance at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Credit Tracy Martin
The one thing serious about this production is the seriously great singing, especially by O’Neill. His powerful voice and bold physical actions made his character of the pirate king both irresistible and unforgettable. I’ve always been a fan of O’Neill but especially enjoyed watching him in this role, marveling over his athleticism and natural grace that display his well-honed theatrical skills. Eisendrath is a fine soprano whose beautiful voice elevated her role as Mabel to a level beyond its usual potential. Likewise, Herdlicka demonstrated the reason behind his impressive career, with a voice worthy of any role.
(l-r) Frederic (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka), Ruth (Anne Allgood), and the Pirate King (Brandon O'Neill) in The Pirates of Penzance at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Credit Mark Kitaoka
But, from a woman’s perspective, I must say that Anne Allgood’s portrayal of Ruth was the most heroic. In a good story, the main characters should be on their own journeys, during which they must face challenges and learn lessons, ending up different than when they began. Hers was the only character who actually changed and came into her own sense of personal power and strength by the ending, quite an accomplishment for a single, middle-aged woman during the Victorian era, and it resonated well.
Frederic (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, left) and the Pirate King (Brandon O'Neill, right) in The Pirates of Penzance at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Credit Tracy Martin
Plot aside, the production dazzled in many ways, and the sets were absolutely stunning, among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen at this theater. There were only two different sets, but they did the job, gorgeously. In one, colorful starfish cling to boulders along the coastline and you can almost hear the sea and smell the evergreen forest. In the other set—the ruins of a cemetery on the Major General’s estate—the lighting and ambience created a beautiful scene. James Rocco’s direction and choreography gave this production a flawless flow and appeal. I offer my most sincere praise for the amazing Tom Sturge, once again, for his amazing scenic and lighting design, worth the price of a ticket alone. Christine Tschirgi scored another victory with her great costume designs and Joel Fram with music direction.

With such a team of professionals, every show at The 5th Avenue is worth seeing. I am not much of Gilbert & Sullivan fan, but I enjoyed every minute of this delightful production. I’m sure you would too. You can order your tickets right here. And just to get inspired, you can take a look at this slideshow. Enjoy!

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