Pirate Booty 

Playhouse loses Gilbert and Sullivan's treasure map.

p> What's wrong with Playhouse on the Square's production of The Pirates of Penzance? In a word: everything.

Well, almost everything. Jimmy Humphries' set design, which includes a pirate ship that sails from one end of the stage to the other, is quite ambitious and potentially impressive, but from top to bottom, the execution is sloppy enough to be distracting. It's especially so if you are sitting stage left, where you can see the actors fall out of character when they exit stage right.

Renee Kemper's music direction is crisp and dynamic, and the production boasts some extraordinary voices that blend beautifully in the show's celebrated choral numbers. But pretty voices are never enough, and W.S. Gilbert's hysterically over-the-top characters never spring to life. Not for a second.

Most surprisingly, choreographer/director Brian Loeffler, the man who dreamed up all the perversely inventive movement for Playhouse on the Square's multi-award-winning production of Urinetown: The Musical and got Klansmen tap dancing like Sammy Davis Jr. in Jerry Springer — The Opera, can't quite get his cast moving. And when he does, the stage is too crowded to be an effective showcase for the zaniness. That, along with the fact that proven actors such as Dave Landis (the Major General) and David Foster (the Pirate King) fall so short of their marks, doesn't bode well for POTS' highly anticipated production of Mel Brooks' The Producers, which Loeffler is also scheduled to direct later this season.

The topsy-turvy world of Gilbert and Sullivan is best realized when the actors take their whimsical roles very seriously. Gilbert, who created a style of satirical storytelling wherein illogical events are followed through to their logical, if surreal, conclusions, insisted that the actors aspire to absolute realism no matter how absurd their roles. He admired precision and stylized movement but despised the winking and congratulatory self-awareness that permeates every aspect of POTS' Pirates.

As is the case with most Gilbert and Sullivan, there are unsubtle political overtones, particularly in the authors' skewering of how ridiculous people rise to positions of wealth, power, and prominence. Pirates' seldom-used subtitle "The Slave to Duty," should serve as a foolproof treasure map for both actor and director. But somehow this simple instruction was abandoned in favor of slapstick and sentimentality.

But it's not all bad. Cheyenne Nelson is generally excellent in the role of Ruth, a dim-witted domestic turned mother figure to the bumbling pirates. And although his characterization of Freddie is thimble-deep, one would be hard pressed to find a more handsome or clarion-voiced hero than Alvaro Francisco Barned. Amber Snyder, whose oversized personality virtually exploded off the stage in Circuit's recent charmer A Year With Frog and Toad, stands out from the rest of the chorus for her ability to blend sincerity with silliness.

It's tempting to say that the decision to stage The Pirates of Penzance was nothing more than an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow. There is certainly an uncanny resemblance between Depp's swishy swashbuckler and Foster's bumbling, mumbling Pirate King, with his long dark locks and over-abundance of mascara. There wouldn't necessarily be anything wrong with that, of course, if the imitation brought anything at all to one of the most beloved and frequently revived shows in the history of musical theater. But it doesn't. Moreover, it robs Foster — a capable comic and dramatic actor — of putting his own stamp on an iconic role that has, in modern times, been played by a diverse group of actors ranging from Kevin Kline and James Belushi to Tim Curry and Barry Bostwick.

Landis' take on the Major General is equally disappointing. Not only is the capable actor stiff as a board, his delivery of the character's famously tongue-twisting lines is quite unintelligible. As a bumbling police sergeant, the atypically marble-mouthed Michael Gravois fares much the same, although he is redeemed somewhat by some physical comedy that would make even Max Sennett proud.

Through February 24th


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