The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Pirates of Penzance" is incredibly fun, filled with swashbuckling pirates, beautiful music, clever lyrics, sly humor and a heart-rending (well, almost) love story. And puppets.
What's not to like?
Director Bill Rauch points out that "Pirates of Penzance" is the first big, classic musical production to be done on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage. Its social satire and sophisticated silliness make it the perfect choice for such a milestone.
In the spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan's mix of the classic and the irreverent, Rauch has added bits and bursts of contemporary music, everything from Bizet to the Beatles, along with homage to "A Chorus Line" and Sinatra. The choreography by Randy Duncan is crisp — and unexpected — the costumes are lush, the voices clear and, from the moment that music director and conductor Daniel Gary Busby starts the overture and cues the seagulls, it all comes together as a gleeful romp.
"Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty" is set on the coast of Cornwall in 1879. The slightly daft plot begins with the 21st birthday of the apprentice pirate Frederic (Eddie Lopez). Frederic's career with the pirate crew began as an unfortunate mistake. His nanny misheard his father's instruction to apprentice the 8-year-old to a ship's "pilot," dutifully binding him to a pirate instead. Realizing she probably would not get good references, the off-kilter Ruth (a very funny Robin Goodrin Nordli) stayed on as "a piratical maid of all work" and, as her charge got older, secretly developed a crush on him.
As Frederic is granted his freedom, he regretfully announces that it is now his "duty" to exterminate the lawless pirates. He also reveals to the Pirate King (Michael Elich — think Errol Flynn with a dash of Johnny Depp) that he has deduced the reasons this is a particularly unsuccessful bunch of buccaneers. First of all, as good Englishmen with the spirit of fair play, they refuse to attack anyone weaker, so they are always "thrashed." And, most importantly, they honorably refuse to attack orphans. Word has gotten around about this and so everyone they capture tearfully confesses to being an orphan.
But even being an unsuccessful pirate seems more palatable than middle class Victorian English society. As the Pirate King observes, "I don't think much of our profession but, contrasted with respectability, it is comparatively honest."
Frederic and Ruth are set adrift toward a nearby cove. There, Frederic catches his first sight of a woman other than Ruth. The cove is filled with the daughters of Major-General Stanley (David Kelly). As a smitten Frederic stalks the bevy of young ladies, Ruth regretfully heads back to alert the pirates.
Mabel (Khori Dastoor), the least stuffy of the daughters, falls for Frederic's earnest demeanor. The rest of the girls are both attracted and repelled by the other pirates. After all, rogues are so tempting.
Stanley gets his family out of the crew's clutches by claiming he is an orphan, although he is subsequently overcome by shame and remorse at having dishonorably resorted to a lie. Frederic offers to lead a band of constables to arrest the pirates and the lovers look forward to a speedy marriage.
At this point, there is a bit of a wrinkle. It turns out that Frederic was born in a leap year. He is not 21 but rather 5-and-a-quarter. He won't have his 21st birthday until 1940 and he is still bound — by duty — to the pirates. It is highly unlikely that Mabel will wait for him.
Of course, all this has a happy ending. The pirates discover that they are really noble orphans who went wrong for lack of proper supervision. The major-general's daughters are, of course, now free to marry them. Frederic gets Mabel. And the constables can go home.
Rauch's casting find for this production is Dastoor as Mabel. Trained at New England Conservatory of Music, Dastoor has an incredibly beautiful coloratura soprano voice and acting talent as well.
The rest of Rauch's actors come from the familiar and excellent OSF repertory company. Eddie Lopez has been around for three years, playing secondary and minor roles, so this breakthrough as Frederic is as welcome as it is unexpected. David Kelly plays the major-general straight and hilarious as the "very model of the modern major-general." Robert Vincent Frank does a fine turn as the pirate lieutenant, complete with parrot.
This is a production with a huge cast — two dozen actors, along with puppeteers, seagulls, bats and dolphins and a 14-piece orchestra up in the gallery — and Rauch keeps it moving at a crackling pace.
"Pirates of Penzance" is definitely going to be a hard ticket to score this season. Do whatever you can — beg, borrow, cajole, whatever — to get a seat. This one is not to be missed!
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.