Filichia Features: The Pirates of Penzance: Once on This Island

Filichia Features: The Pirates of Penzance: Once on This Island

By Peter Filichia on December 15, 2017

You might have seen it live ... or by way of the video of the Broadway production ... or the resulting film version.

However you witnessed the still-famous 1981 production of The Pirates of Penzance, you probably can still recall as how free-wheeling it was. Remember William Elliott taking time out from conducting the orchestra to have a swordfight with Kevin Kline's Pirate King?

What we learned from Wilford Leach's fresh production was that the G&S masterpiece needn't be treated as a museum piece. Arch operetta-styled voices are hardly a requirement, either. Just have fun with it.

Certainly that's what the whimsically named The Hypocrites did with the musical in their recent engagement at the Skirball Center. Director Sean Graney decided that a show that takes place on an island is enough reason to configure your theater into one - a Caribbean one.

So Graney brought us onto the Skirball stage to sit in bleachers arranged in a football stadium set-up; in between, the musical was presented amid children's wading pools. Rustic wood-slatted benches were there for some theatergoers to sit inside where the action would take place, but at their peril: The Pirate King, The Major General, Frederic and Mabel would occasionally have the need to march onto the benches where they were sitting. Two "lifeguards" were on hand to tap theatergoers on their shoulders and point to where they should move their glueti maximi lest the actors literally walk all over them.

After a while, some spectators didn't just walk to their new location; they were virtually dancing in time to the music as they made their way. Everyone either wants or needs to work off a few calories; many audience members did at Pirates.

(At intermission, however, they could have gained them back, for a bambooed Tiki bar was at far stage left where one could buy pina coladas and the like).

The lighting was warm and tropical, thanks to designer Heather Gilbert, allowing us to see Alison Siple's costumes; she put most everyone in beachwear. The pirates and Frederic wore Bermuda shorts; Mabel's cohorts sported floral-topped bathing caps.

Tellingly, Frederic sported the pirate trademark -- a black eyepatch -- but wore it a bit askew so that it only covered a fraction of his eye. What a smart metaphor for what was to come: Frederic did have some affinity for the Pirates who'd raised him, but he was unwilling to endorse what they did for a living. Thus he planned to take his leave now that he was 21.

The substantially older Ruth who's served as the Pirates' maid felt she's the woman for him. Who can blame Frederic for having his doubts? Ruth is the one who got him apprenticed to pirates when she misheard Frederic's father's directive to indenture him to pilots. And because she's no kid -- and he's never seen a young woman of any kind -- he'd like to hold off until he can find one.

Graney had Frederic take his case to the court of public opinion -- meaning the audience that loudly agreed that Frederic should take his time and take his pick of the women he'd meet now that he was about to be out of the pirates' clutches.

Frederic saw the audience and he proved right when Mabel and other belles reached the island. Note Graney's great idea: Christine Stulik who played Ruth (in hair curlers the size of bratwursts) doubled as Mabel. It's oft been said that young men tend to marry women that resemble their mothers; here Frederic was essentially doing that.

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert characterized the two as innocents, and Graney adhered to that in a novel way. Rather than have them do anything romantic or sexual, he had Stulik and Shawn Pfautsch toss a beach ball slowly back and forth to the other in a way that suggested they were making love in their own virtuous way.

When the lasses introduced us to The Major General, they stressed the word "major" so it wasn't just his title but their way of saying he was super-important. And when Mabel sang, her three friends postured themselves to seem like her backup singers.

That wasn't the extent of contemporizing the music. The peripatetic cast members accompanied themselves on instruments that they carried around. This had to be one of the few-if-any G&S productions that eschewed a piano (which would be too heavy to lug around the "island"). Instead we heard a clarinet, guitar, banjo, ukulele and two off-the-beaten-track instruments: a washboard and, yes, a regulation saw played with a violin bow on its non-serrated edge. The score sure didn't sound 138 years old (which it will be on New Year's Eve).

Now we're not saying that you should pirate anything from this Pirates. The point is that Graney's zaniness might remind you that the show is open to a multitude of interpretations and approaches. Frederic is said to be a "slave of duty," but you don't have to be.

Although the musical is welcome at any time of the year, you could set an opening date of Feb. 29, 2020. That would commemorate the 168th anniversary of Frederic's birth - unless you consider, as the pirates do, that it's actually Frederic's 45th birthday. And if that sounds confusing to you, then you must investigate The Pirates of Penzance where you'll get a very cogent explanation.

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You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at and Tuesday at . His book, The Great Parade: Broadway's Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at