Britain was a great seafaring nation in 1879, when Gilbert and Sullivan, that zany team of satirical operetta writers (and in many ways precursors to Monty Python) penned their ever-popular show “The Pirates of Penzance.”
The story they told — of a seaman who has reached his 21st birthday but faces many obstacles in his promotion from “indentured” apprentice to full-blown pirate — captured the watery world of that island nation and poked fun at the exaggerated sense of duty and fair-thinking so pervasive in 19th century English society.
In his giddy, ever-buoyant, freshly reinvented revival of the show for the Hypocrites, director Sean Graney has stepped up to the helm of this goofy classic and distilled it to a salty 80 minutes. In the process — with the expert assistance of musical arranger Kevin O’Donnell — he has turned it into the very model of a thoroughly hip and playfully modern piece of musical theater. Happily, he also never loses sight of the show’s Victorian world view, with its devotion to the queen, its preoccupation with orphans and bumbling policemen and wedding etiquette. The result is a zany delight.
Though I am no big fan of the promenade style Graney often favors, this time around it works ideally. He has perfected the technique so that the action is organized and connected to the text, and also consistently visible to the ambulatory crowd that “follows” each scene from place to place. (The view also is ideal from the 10 plastic beach chairs provided for those who prefer not to move.)
In addition, set designer Tom Burch has created a sparkling water world — with a boardwalk and pier environment along the lines of that in Brighton, England; lights strung overhead (cheers for designer Jared Moore); blue plastic kiddie swimming pools atop tables, and the walls of Chopin Theatre’s studio space painted a weatherbeaten blue.
All the crucial classic songs from the Gilbert and Sullivan show are here, but O’Donnell has supplied zesty new arrangements for them, and at various moments, the lively, comically and vocally talented cast of 10 creates its own accompaniment on guitars, banjo, accordion, clarinet, violin, harmonica and helmet top.
Zeke Sulkes is wonderfully engaging as Frederic, the hapless young indenture who suffers from a Leap Year birthday. And with her goofy spirit and coloratura voice, Christine Stulik is a marvel as both Ruth, Frederic’s homely middle-aged nurse, and Mabel, his fetching beloved.
Matt Kahler, large and fleet, is an ideally pompous and sentimental Major General. And Robert McLean is an authoritative Pirate King. Becky Poole, Emily Casey and Nikki Klix are savvy and adorable as the Major General’s naughty, sweet-voiced, marriageable daughters. And Ryan Bourque, Doug Pawlik and Shawn Pfautsch are the high-stepping, soft-hearted pirates.
Maureen Janson’s choreography is pure fun, and Alison Siple’s costumes are full of ingenuity and wit.
With “The Mikado” now at Lyric Opera, and “Pirates” at the Chopin, Chicago feels like Gilbert and Sullivan central. Happy sailing.