‘The Pirates of Penzance’ Offers a Silly, Entertaining Night at the Ordway

City Pages & Ed Huyck, City Pages 8/13/15

One of the most entertaining shows in the Twin Cities right now is an opera.

Wait, don’t run away. This isn’t about sitting for seven hours watching people in Viking helmets bellow in German.

The Ordway’s thoroughly entertaining The Pirates of Penzance makes the most of Gilbert and Sullivan’s enduring work by embracing its absurd core, with a tremendously talented cast along for the ride.

James A. Rocco’s production does push the material a bit, but that’s mainly in presentation. Musically, the arrangements are spry, but are played straight. That’s a relief for anyone who suffered through the Guthrie’s disco-fied H.M.S. Pinafore a few seasons back.

One of the keys is to let composer Sullivan be Sullivan. The man wrote earworms like a modern-day pop producer, and the barrage of catchy tunes never lets up.

Gilbert’s libretto is loaded with Monty Python absurdity, which director Rocco builds on by moving the action from Cornwall to the wilds of Canada. But The Pirates of Vancouver doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, and there really isn’t much done with this shift in location apart from dressing bumbling policemen up as Mounties.

The story centers on Frederic, a young man who was mistakenly indentured to a band of pirates as a young boy. He’s reached his 21st year, and can now go out on his own.

That doesn’t sit well with their leader, the aptly named Pirate King, or Ruth, the woman who accidentally indentured Frederic (she was supposed to find a “pilot,” not a “pirate”) and then remained with the crew.

While they scheme to keep him in the family, Frederic sets out on his own. He meets up with a gaggle of young women, including the beautiful Mabel. They are the daughters of Major General Stanley, who arrives on the scene. So do the pirates, who threaten the whole gathering until Stanley fibs about being an orphan (the pirates have a weakness for orphans).

The story comes down to Frederic’s strong sense of duty. He feels bound to destroy his former seagoing friends — until they are able to show that he should still be in their clutches. Will his duty lead him back to the sea? Or will he follow his heart and make a life with Mabel?

All of this serious talk shouldn’t scare you off. The Pirates of Penzance is a completely silly, satirical exercise, where the pirates sing a loud, clanging tune about how quiet and stealthy they are when raiding Stanley’s home.

Then there’s Stanley himself. Gary Briggle, wearing more makeup than a Ru Paul’s Drag Race contestant, makes his vain model of the military elite a delight to watch whenever he’s on stage.

The same is true for Brandon O’Neill as the Pirate King and Kersten Rodau as Ruth and Deiter Beirbarauer as the scaredy-cat Mountie sergeant. In fact, it’s true of the whole cast. They have a ball for two hours, and their palpable joy is infectious.

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