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Paulanne Simmons

Paper Mill Playhouse Presents a Delightful and Undutiful "Pirates!"

Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Paper Mill Playhouse
Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
Opened June 7, 2007
Wed. 7:30 p.m. Thurs. 2 and 7:30 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7:30 p.m.
$25-$92 (973) 376-4343 or www.papermill.org
Closes July 8, 2007
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons June 16, 2007

There may be some purists who are uncomfortable with the changes Gordon Greenberg, Nell Benjamin and John McDaniel have made to Gilbert and Sullivan's much loved "The Pirates of Penzance," but there will be many more who are intrigued and delighted with this new version of the great comic opera. "Pirates," now premiering at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, does superbly what so often ends in disaster: making a parody of a parody.

With Benjamin's additional book and lyrics, McDaniel's arrangements and orchestration, and Greenberg's direction, "Pirates!" takes the musical from a rocky seashore on the coast of Cornwall to the Caribbean, where the fastidious English pirates become rowdy and raucous churls. But that's only the beginning.

The Pirate King (the magnificent Andrew Varela) is a Johnny Depp-type braggart and ladies man; Ruth (Liz McCartney) is a slut, who probably mistook "pilot" for "pirate" because she was inebriated at the time; and Mabel (Farhah Alvin) is an independent young lady who knows how to handle a gun.

There are some minor changes in the plot (the pirates are cursed with losing their "land legs" until they find virgins to marry), but Benjamin has done nothing that doesn't sit comfortably with the original. There are also many sly winks to the audience and a lot more racy material than Gilbert and Sullivan would have ever ventured, including the use of naughty words like "fornicating."

Major-General Stanley (the first-rate Ed Dixon) blithely executes all Gilbert's tongue twisters as well as a few of Benjamin's observations, such as "I wonder if it's right to have societal disparities, when I look at the natives I see similarities." Later, he observes in dialogue, "We don't have to solve the problems. We just have to look like we're doing something. That is the essence of government."

There are many musical highlight in "Pirates!" But nothing outshines the inspired "Tarantara!" which McDaniel gives a reggae beat. The song is performed by a multi-racial chorus of ragtag policemen who really want to start a band instead of fighting pirates who hide behind the curtains.

If all the above is not enough of a recommendation, it should be mentioned that Rob Bissinger's set design turns the stage into an island paradise, David C. Woolard's costumes combine Victorian primness with Caribbean color and Warren Carlyle's choreography is robust and rollicking.

On December 10, 1879, Sullivan wrote to his mother about the new opera he was working on in New York City, telling her, "I think it will be a great success, for it is exquisitely funny, and the music is strikingly tuneful and catching." Sullivan's words proved prophetic.

Over one hundred years later, Gilbert and Sullivan's take on British colonialism, charming outlaws, innocent virgins and unswerving duty is as funny (and yes, relevant) as ever. And like the dutiful Frederic (Barrett Foa), the team behind "Pirates!" has found a way of being faithful, but unlike Frederic, they have not been slaves of duty.



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