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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Pirates of Penzance

How many of you have been to this theater before? It looks a little different, doesn't it.— Hypocrites cast member, pre-curtain at the Pasadena Playhouse<
Pirates of Penzance
After spending pre-curtain time swatting beach balls of all sizes around the re-jiggered Pasadena Playhouse, watching people settle into their seats in kiddy wading pools, grabbing a drink at the on-stage bar duringm the performance, one might feel a thematic disconnect over watching an actor land a sophisticated geometric rhyme for “lot-a-news.”

But all is well. Victorians though they were, the anything-but-prudish duo of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan messed merrily with British conventions in their operettas, and people have been tinkering with G&S's work ever since. The beach party staging of Pirates of Penzance has become a jewel for the Chicago troupe The Hypocrites, with recent stops at Berkeley Rep, NYU's Skirball Center and the current engagement at the Pasadena Playhouse. Following its extended run, the performance will visit the Olney Theatre Center in Maryland.

Given the spirit of this show, audiences venturing to the Pasadena Playhouse Penzance should be in the mood to play since there's a sporting, good chance they'll wind up flush in the middle of the action. Although there are stationary seats placed in three-quarter-round configuration surrounding Tom Burch's dockside stage, many audience members sit on the stage itself: on benches, up on risers in the aforementioned wading pools, atop coolers, even on the floor. The actors conduct a friendly pre-show drill directing folks how to vacate and relocate when the players move through. But make no mistake: we're all part of the action.

Make that part of the party. Director and adaptor Sean Graney has filed Penzance down to 80 rollicking minutes of beachside frivolity. A large curtain at the end of the dock displays the word “Duty” which is a buzz word for the motivation of the play's young hero, Freddy. So any time someone utters the word, the actors collectively do a goofy little swivel in the direction of that curtain. Well, the Hypocrites' duty is to entertain us and ours is to get with the program. Mission delightfully accomplished on both counts.

A bash needs music, and this Penzance has plenty. There is both the G&S score (trimmed down a bit) along with bits of a few contemporary tunes, directed by music director Andra Velis Simon and executed by the 10-person cast, each of whom plays several instruments. When former pirate apprentice Freddy (Doug Pawlik) and Major General's daughter Mabel (Dana Omar) discover their mutual attraction for each other, they conduct their musical flirtation via guitars and banjos. After sneaking off together, the lovebirds return having (oops!) swapped instruments.

Bearing some similarities to its nautical G&S cousin H.M.S. Pinafore, Penzance opens with Freddy coming of age and forsaking a life of piracy. Released from the bond of his apprenticeship, he now vows to eradicate the pirates, despite their rather un-briggandly reputation for being too kind-hearted and refusing to attack orphans. Led by their King (Shawn Pfatsch), the pirates set their sights both on marrying all the daughters of Major General Stanley (Matt Kahler) and bringing Freddy back into the pirate fold. The latter is accomplished through a loop-hole involving Leap Year. Cowardly policemen become involved and all ends well.

Graney's small company and plot-streamlining means no boffo production numbers and no lingering over character development or relationship building. Younger audiences may not follow the story or enjoy the sophistication of the word patter (“Lot-a-News/hypotenuse,”) but most of us should be having too much blast to care.

Pretty much every actor gets a turn as pirate, a daughter and/or cop. The quite versatile Omar pulls off both ingenue Mabel and Freddy's dowdy nurse Ruth, switching effortlessly between costumes and displaying a lovely coloratura range. Kahler rips gleefully into “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.” With his pointed helmet and the tails of his top that he flairs out whenever uttering the word "orphan," Kahler is a quite pixie-ish Stanley. Pfatsch's Pirate King (his sailor cap proclaims his title) foregoes self-absorption for outright silliness. Like his fellow players, Pfatsch has a high old time mixing it up with the audience. Kudos also to actress Lauren Vogel who, once the pirates and maidens reach an agreement on nuptial terms, calls out “Let's hear it for consent!”

Burch, lighting designer Heather Gilbert (great tiki lights!) and the technical team deserve a collective priate huzzah for their transformation of the Playhouse stage and for establishing a festive atmosphere that is maintained before, during, and after the show. After they've hoisted anchor and headed east, here's hoping Graney and his Hyporitical return to West Coast waters soon.

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Libretto by W.S. Gilbert
Music by Arthur Sullivan
Adapted and directed by Sean Graney
Co-Adapted by Kevin O'Donnell
Directed by Sean Graney

Cast: Mario Aivazian, Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carillo, Matt Kahler, Amanda Raquel Martinez, Tina Munoz Pandya, Dana Omar, Doug Pawlik, Shawn Pfautsch, Leslie Ann Sheppard, Lauren Vogel
Scenic Design: Tom Burch
Lighting Design: Heather Gilbert
Sound Design: Kevin O'Donnell
Costume Design: Alison Siple
Stage Manager: Miranda Anderson
Choreographer: Katie Spelman
Plays through February 25, 2018 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. (310) 434-3200,
Running time: one hour and twenty minutes with one one-minute intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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