The Parrot Heads of Penzance are back for another warm winter

Chris Jones

A tiki bar serving mai tais and the like has been added to The Hypocrites’ production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” back for a second winter. The ability to imbibe, mid-show and for a mere five-spot, a fruity cocktail with a little umbrella is, perhaps, the final cherry on the top of director Sean Graney’s wacky but supremely joyous little tribute to W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s famously scurvy musical tale of dutiful orphans and their simpering amours, not to mention comic coppers and that most modern of Major-Generals.

The concrete corner of Division Street and Milwaukee and Ashland Avenues is a brutalist triangular intersection not exactly known for its warm, lapping breezes and bucolic sunsets, so be assured that that the booze in the blender is located indoors, in the basement of the Chopin Theatre. It’s all part of Graney’s inspired conceit that takes this 19th century operetta (or the good bits, anyway) and mixes it with a kind of “Beach Blanket Babylon” conceit, all performed on a go-where-you-want set (the work of Tom Burch) that resembles nothing so much as the set of “Mamma Mia!” combined with the decor of one of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurants. Well, it’s a bit classier than that, but you get the idea. The witty lighting design from Jared Moore is not so much a lighting concept as an attempt to assuage seasonal affective disorder, which, let me tell you, is one very real disorder in my particular head. And the first snow has yet to fly.

Unless you are a Gilbert-and-Sullivan purist incapable of understanding that authentic Victorian topsy-turveydom will survive long after Graney, it’s hard not to have big-time fun at this carnival of a “Pirates,” which lands in one of rare but sweet spots where a fairly outlandish off-Loop conceit meshes deliciously with the original material. Certainly, this 85-minute affair does not contain every last word of Gilbert’s libretto — it’s all the famous songs, plus enough connective tissue to tell the story. But I felt the same way as when I saw the 90-minute “Phantom of the Opera” in Las Vegas — didn’t miss the other 90 minutes for as second.

Graney’s secret ingredient here is Kevin O’Donnell’s hilarious orchestrations, which involve playing those public-domain Sullivan ditties on a variety of stringed instruments, ranging from violins to acoustic guitars to ukuleles, often played from inside a plastic swimming pool. This multi-stringed sound has an amusingly driven quality that not only pokes a little fun at Parrot Heads and all they hold dear, but consistently makes you laugh, even as it gives new life to Sullivan’s famous toe-tapping melodies, with which this particular show is especially well stocked.

The casting is similarly amusing — the ranks of General Stanley’s daughters are reduced to three, who double as the police. And better yet, Graney doubles the roles of Mabel and Ruth, which has the added benefit of reducing the inherent ageism of the original plot. “Are you Ruth or Mabel?” the actress Christine Stulik is asked. “I have no idea,” she says, truthfully enough, to fits of laughter.

As was the case last year, the show is cast with exuberant young actors and musicians whose singing ranges from passable to pretty decent. Only the splendid Matt Kahler, who plays Major General Stanley, comes with the full compliment of Gilbert-and-Sullivan technique, including a skill with a patter song that could rival any light-opera outfit. And you can hear Shawn Pfautsch’s fine voice coming through in the ensemble. But other than that, you have to make some allowances, though the music was much tighter this year and it was clear that all involved had been working hard on nailing the various ditties. It is no great sacrifice.

I still think this truly terrific conception would be yet funnier with a full compliment of operetta-trained singers, and it would not surprise me if it gets exported from Chicago that way, but the lovable local troupers here nearly bust a collective gasket getting into the spirits of things and offering a little spring break amid a Chicago winter.