Vista’s Broadway Theater’s production of The Pirates of Penzance makes Joseph Papp’s famed and extremely funny interpretation seem like a prestigious piece of Shakespearian literature. Right off the bat, it is clear that co-owner and director Randall Hickman does not want the audience to take a second of his staging of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta seriously. Instead, his intent is for theatregoers to enjoy an evening of surreal slapstick hijinks.
While additional jokes and snippets of dialogue have been added, the plot has essentially not been altered. Frederic (Ben Williams) spends his youth as an apprentice to a band of buccaneers led by the charismatic, but gullible, Pirate King (Torre Younghans). Frederic’s training ends after his twenty-first birthday and he then decides to explore the land with his nursemaid, Ruth (Renetta Lloyd). Soon, he falls in love with the beautiful Mabel (Kathryn Baker), yet their romance is potentially doomed after the freebooters capture Mabel and her sisters.
Hickman uses a framing device to make his version of The Pirates of Penzance unique. In the opening scene, a group of cavemen-esque actors, stuck on an island (set designer and director Hickman and set constructionist and co-owner Douglas Davis work wonders on the tiny stage), come up with the idea to perform their own take on the opera. This, in addition to the “numerous hats” being worn by a few in the troupe, means there is a deliberately amateurish quality to the evening.
Many props incorporate pages from the San Diego U-T newspaper, a few male actors occasionally dress up in drag to unsuccessfully play some of the female roles and the pre-recorded music often sounds more designed for a summer carnival instead of a theatrical musical score. However, all of these elements enhance the tale instead of serving as a distraction, because Hickman has created a jovial celebration of triumph against the odds. It is strangely inspiring to see the group of thespians tell such a grand epic with generally limited resources. Since the cast appears to be having a blast and the tone is so upbeat, the message about the power of storytelling resonates.
A good amount of the performers rely more on their comedic chops than their singing skills, which is not meant as an insult. The scallywags know how to tickle the funny bone during musical numbers such as “With Cat-Like Tread,” “Climbing Over Rocky Mountain” and “When the Foreman Bears his Steel.”
Special recognition should go to Davis who after giving patrons their tickets at the box office, quickly gets into character as the leader of the stranded group. Before Act 1 is over, Davis transforms into Mabel’s father, Major-General Stanley. He sings the rousing patter song “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” with confident gusto. Not an easy task given that the showstopper is just as difficult to deliver as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
If the previous paragraph makes the humor in The Pirates of Penzance sound somewhat sophisticated, the laughs are generally unapologetically lowbrow. There will likely never be another version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s masterpiece to feature a reoccurring joke about the word “duty.” Even when things get blue, the comedy does not venture into PG-13 territory, so parents and kids can enjoy the live shenanigans together.
Gilbert and Sullivan purists might be disappointed to learn that certain scenes are condensed. Songs including “Oh, False One, You Have Deceived Me” and “Oh, is There Not One Maiden Breast” are eliminated and others such as “Hold, Monsters!” are shortened. Perhaps, Hickman thought that using the entire text would slow some sequences down? No matter the reason, though the tunes are missed, the adventure flows smoothly and the evening runs at a pretty mischievously quick pace.
Throw in cheery choreography from Hickman and Baker along with tongue-in-cheek lighting from Hickman, and the romp could influence patrons to create their own renditions of timeless classics. This is not your grandparents’ The Pirates of Penzance but even they should love the performance.