I reviewed “The Pirates of Penzance” at Lakewood Playhouse 10 years ago. Now it’s back with a new and quite different production with an all new cast and director. The earlier production was directed by Barry Johnson, a director with extensive experience directing opera. It was produced in a classic style with an emphasis on the operatic aspects of the Gilbert and Sullivan musical.
This newer version is directed by John Munn, who has a broad theatrical background including acting in and directing comedies, dramas, and musicals — even including “Pirates of Penzance.” Munn’s version weighs in more heavily on the comic aspects and the physicality. Not that the singing isn’t good, it is, but it is less operatic and more like “Monty Python” or a Warner Brothers cartoon, which is pointed out in the promotional material. There are also sly references to “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” and to other plays and pop-culture icons, some of which only some folks will get and others of a more personal nature that nobody would get, such as pirates climbing a ladder into the audience in tribute to Tim Curry, whose version of “Pirates” the director saw in his youth.
In addition to directing, Munn plays the Pirate King. This was not his intention. He did not want the burden and huge challenge of both directing and playing a lead role, but circumstances made it necessary, and he is so good in the part that I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. His commanding presence, his comic timing, his singing, and his acrobatic physicality are astounding.
Also outstanding are Gary Chambers, a veteran of many Lakewood Playhouse performances, as the loveable Major-General Stanley and Fune Tautala in his Lakewood Playhouse debut as Frederic.
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Standout performances are also turned in by Kathy Sawrey as Ruth and Allyson Jacobs-Lake as the love interest, Mabel. Both Sawrey and Jacobs-Lake sing clearly and sweetly, and each plays her part as a complex and multi-faceted character.
Derek Hall as the police sergeant is a comic treasure. He looks like Ringo Starr and moves like Charlie Chaplin. All of the policemen are amazing in their almost gravity-defying movements (choreographed by Amanda Jackson). The same can be said of the rest of the ensemble cast, the pirates and the many daughters of the Major-General.
These ensemble groups are great singing in chorus. The choral singing, in fact, outshines most of the solo singing. The groups of policemen and pirates move almost as a single entity, and yet each policeman and pirate and daughter is a distinct individual.
Ruth, at 47, is the only woman 21-year-old Frederic has ever seen. He believes she is beautiful because she says she is. And then he sees the many daughters and discovers real beauty and falls in love with Mabel. But he can’t have her because he is indentured to the pirates until his 21st birthday, which will not arrive until he is 64 because he was a leap year baby. It might be the most absurd plot device ever devised, but it’s funny, and that’s what matters.
This version of “The Pirates of Penzance” is a musical laughathon.
One other note of interest: There is a recessed orchestra pit in the middle of the stage, and actors move all around the three-piece orchestra, two pianos and a drum set, with musical director Deborah Armstrong playing one of the pianos and occasionally — and hilariously — breaking the fourth wall to direct and interact with the actors. This is something I’ve never seen anywhere. It brings down the house.
Opening night was sold out and tickets are going fast, so get yours as soon as possible.
Check Alec’s blog at alecclayton.blogspot.com for reviews of other area theatrical productions.
‘The Pirates of Penzance’
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through June 25
WHERE: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood
INFORMATION: 253.588.0042, www.lakewoodplayhouse.org