It’s said that nothing succeeds like excess.
By that measure, or nearly any other, Heritage Theatre Festival’s production of “Pirates of Penzance,” which runs in the Culbreth through July 9, definitely succeeds.
It’s a wondrous dose of silly in a crazy world, a break from reality sorely needed in these times less gentle than Gilbert and Sullivan’s Victorian world.
The central premise alone is funny. It tells the tale of a young man honor bound to duty, but mistakenly apprenticed to pirates, rather than pilots, by a slightly deaf nursemaid.
Director/Choreographer Colleen Kelly clearly had a wonderful time with this, letting the actors take full advantage of their individual talents, yet fully incorporating all into a cohesive whole.
She’s aided and abetted by Musical Director Greg Harris, who also ably conducts an entirely local, entirely talented 20 piece orchestra. This isn’t Harris’ first time at the rodeo; he and some members of this cast have done this show before, and he’s been in the pit for most Heritage musicals since 1998. Sullivan’s score itself often parodies other composers, so the humor here is not just in the spoken word. Harris’ orchestra works hand-in-instrument with the cast, giving us a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Director Kelly also has chosen her designers well. R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting combines so seamlessly with Bill Clark’s scene design that it can be hard to tell which is which. But keep an eye on the medallion above the false proscenium, top center.
Both designers have effectively used a downstage scrim as an opening curtain, and as the lights subtly change we see small, funny set elements at the bottom of it, until it fully reveals Clark’s marvelous pirate ship, and the kindhearted group of pirates.
Dan Stern is in his element here, giving a superbly acted, very funny, and well sung swashbuckling Pirate King, backed by a funny slightly ragtag group of talented fellow pirates.
Young Ashton Guthrie is fully in the spirit of the silly, and in very good voice, as Fredric, the hapless duty bound apprentice, playing his role straight, which makes it all the funnier. Though he’s young, his performance is fully professional. Wendy Novicoff is terrific as the nursemaid.
Taerra Pence’s impressive coloratura soprano is a treat all by itself, and blends beautifully with Guthrie’s mellow tenor, and she acts as well as she sings.
And then there’s Doug Schneider, who shamelessly hams it up as the very model of a modern major general—but then, that’s what the role calls for. He is superb, start to finish, very funny and in very good voice (and breath). In this show the fourth wall is not only broken, it’s shattered, and hilariously so.
PIRATES OF PENZANCE
Heritage Theatre Festival at UVa
Through July 9
The designers have given him an entrance that has to be seen to be believed, and may well be one of the most creative ever done for this show.
The only false note in what is overall an excellent production comes in the second act, when the police arrive on the scene. Young Joe Cooney, as the sergeant, is still a bit tentative in his acting, though when he lets loose in full singing voice he seems more comfortable, and does well.
The problem, it seems, is more with director Kelly’s concept for the police. She has them entering bent over, and it’s hard to tell why, though it does look like she’s giving them a Keystone Cops flavor. This one might be better left to as straight an interpretation as possible, since the business for them is funny enough.
But that’s barely a blip on a production well worth seeing, and one beautifully suited to audiences new to the show, as well as those who have seen it before.
The show has five remaining performances, with one tonight, July 2nd at 7:30 p.m., and four more from July 7-9, including a matinee on July 9.
Gilbert and Sullivan purists might take issue with some of this production, but it’s fully in the spirit in which the show was clearly created, designed to entertain.
In that, it certainly succeeds.
ABOUT CLARE AUKOFER
Clare Aukofer holds a BFA in Theatre and Education from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has worked at professional theaters, including Ford’s Theatre, and served as the theatre critic for the Charlottesville Daily Progress from 1982 to mid-2015. She has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association for her reviews, and has won numerous other awards for writing and editing.