ART’s ‘Pirates of Penzance’ is a fun trip

By Jeffrey Gantz

It’s part of the charm of ­Gilbert & Sullivan’s operettas that they can survive almost any degree of updating and parody of the original parody. In 2009, the Huntington Theatre Company offered a “Pirates! (Or, Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d)” that shifted “The Pirates of Penzance” from the Cornish coast to the Caribbean and turned the ­Pirate King into a version of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. Now the American Repertory Theater is presenting the Chicago-based Hypocrites in “Pirates of Penzance,” a production in which Robert McLean’s Pirate King wears a big white sailor cap with “KING” across the front, bathing beauties throw beachballs about, and you can, at the Loeb Drama Center, buy tickets for the Promenade area and mingle with the actors.
Visually, this “Pirates,” which runs 80 minutes with a one-minute intermission (only about 25 minutes shorter than the original), is a trip. But the ­Hypocrites, whose founding ­artistic director, Sean Graney, is a Saugus native and an Emerson College graduate, stick reasonably close to the story and the songs. As a result of a mistake by his nursemaid, Ruth (Christine Stulik), who in receiving instructions regarding his nautical ­future misheard “pilot” as ­“pirate,” young Frederic (Zeke Sulkes) has been apprenticed to a band of dimwitted buccaneers who never attack orphans. Frederic is about to turn 21, so it ­appears he’ll be able to abandon his scurvy mates, enter a respect­able profession, and marry Mabel (Stulik again), the beautiful daughter of Major General Stanley (Matt Kahler). The pirates, however, point out that since Frederic was born on Feb. 29, his 21st birthday won’t fall for another 63 years. And he is, as the operetta’s subtitle reminds us, “The Slave of Duty.”

You won’t be in danger of forgetting that at the Loeb: the backdrop has “DUTY” stenciled on it in huge letters, and every time the word is uttered on stage, the performers turn and acknowledge it. Most of the ­action takes place on a wooden boardwalk, with the audience on three sides and the Promenade viewers seated on benches and water coolers and in beach chairs and a couple of kiddie pools. Tiki lights provide illumination; a bar in the rear promises “Cocktails.” Before the show starts, the beachballs go flying (watch your drinks), a conga line forms, and nautical numbers like “Sloop John B” are sung.

Not everything is ship-shape on board this production. The instruments (all played by the performers) include violin, ­banjo, harmonica, accordion, concertina, flute, clarinet, musical saw, and washboard, but only the guitars really register, and they wash out Sullivan’s harmonies. Worse, though enunciation in the dialogue is excellent, ­Gilbert’s witty lyrics (including “I am the very model of a modern major general”) evaporate when the performers start singing. And the voices range from operatic to screechy. The vocal highlight, Mabel’s obtusely radiant “Go, ye heroes, go and die,” is shorn of all beauty.

But this “Pirates” is a lot of fun. Alison Siple’s costumes would be just right for the remake of “Beach Blanket Bingo.” Sulkes’s Frederic sports an eyepatch, a skull-and-crossbones tie, and an aqua watch and sweatband. Stulik’s Ruth, in huge curlers, wears a skull-and-crossbones apron over her housedress, a captain’s hat, ­orange water wings, and a green flipper on her right foot. Kahler’s mutton-chopped Major General Stanley combines a Prussian spiked helmet with baby-chick slippers; McLean’s Pirate King chomps on a telescoping cigarette holder that is so long that someone must have told him to stay away from cigarettes. First the pirates and then Stanley’s daughters double as police in ponchos and fake mustaches.

The acting is accomplished, if not subtle. McLean and Kahler do a fine job with the “orphan”- “often” exchange. The mincing, high-stepping “With cat-like tread” is a musical pleasure, as is the reverent “Hail Poetry.” And Stulik transitions from Ruth to Mabel with dizzying speed. At the end, she turns up in a strapless red dress and veil; Frederic asks, “Are you Ruth or Mabel?.” She answers, “I have no idea.” It’s that kind of evening.