Yo to the Ho! Pirates rock in Penzance

Pirates 1
John Paul Gonzalez (far right) as Frederic proclaims his love and his loathing for his fellow pirates and their life of crime in the Berkeley Playhouse production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, a rock update of the operetta classic. Below: Rana Weber is nursemaid Ruth, explaining to the pirates how Frederic, her charge, ended up with pirates instead of a pilot, as was intended. Photos by Larry Abel

Singing pirates automatically make me think of two things: the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland with their rousing “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” and the dreadful and utterly loveable 1982 movie musical flop The Pirate Movie starring Kristy McNichol and Christopher Atkins as Mabel and Frederic, respectively, in a pop-rock adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance. Along with Grease 2 (also 1982), this is one of the worst movie musicals ever and, also like Grease 2, one of my all-time favorites. For a taste of The Pirate Movie, see the videos below. Would that I could show you the whole, terrible thing. We’d have so much fun.

I’m thinking about singing pirates because I had the pleasure of seeing Berkeley Playhouse’s production of The Pirates of Penzance this weekend. If Berkeley Playhouse is not on your radar because you think it’s a kids theater, you should think again. The Playhouse’s professional season produces shows for the entire family, and they do mean entire. Adults can have as much fun (if not more) than the kids. They hire some fantastic directors such as, in this case, Jon Tracy, who turns Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 operetta into a high-energy rock musical.

Without straining too hard, musical director Jonathan Fadner (on guitar and keyboards) and his other three players turn the score into a legitimate pop-rock score. The only difference between this and, say, Rent, is the abundance of clever, tongue-twisting lyrics and the utter sweetness of a swashbuckling show that values poetry as much as swordplay.

There’s a vague futuristic tone to Tracy’s vision, from the industrial look of Nina Ball’s sets to the punky flair of Abra Berman’s costumes, and that makes it all seem rather cartoony in a fun comic book sort of way. Why shouldn’t there be merrily marauding pirates in the future?

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The G&S story about a 21-year-old pirate – Frederic (played with dashing charm by John Paul Gonzalez) – who’s really only 5 years old because of leap year complications and his love-at-first-sight girlfriend, Mabel (the silken-voiced Juliet Heller). There’s a Pirate King, of course, played with cross-dressing panache by Cathleen Riddley, and a hard-of-hearing nursemaid who’s much cuter than she’s supposed to be (thanks to Rana Weber) and the very model of modern major general who happens to ride a motorized scooter (excellent driving and rapping by Terry Rucker).

Even musical director Fadner gets in on the act. During an Act 1 scene change, he pops up from the orchestra pit in full snorkel headgear, wailing on his guitar … with a fish.

The show is just under two hours even with an intermission and zips by with help from Emily Morrison’s fist-pumping choreography that occasionally recalls large group moves from ’80s videos – and what’s more fun than ’80s videos? The kids sitting around me were captivated by the show, especially when swords were drawn and the large cast was engaged in fight director Dave Maier’s always excellent moves.

The rock sound of the show spans the decades. There’s a lot of 1950s rockabilly with an Elvis-like rumble, not to mention ’60s surf guitars, ’70s punk and ’80s post-punk. Of course it’s all of a family-friendly variety and played at a comfortable volume.

[bonus videos]
In case your knowledge of The Pirate Movie is limited, please feel free to drink from this well of ’80s kitsch and see why Christopher Atkins and Kristy McNichol were never huge musical stars (but they’re adorable and awfully good sports). The first song, “Pumpin’ and Blowin’,” is an extreme guilty pleasure. The second song is the grand finale, with Frederic and Mabel and everyone pairing off for a happy ending. What would Gilbert and Sullivan think?


Berkeley Playhouse’s The Pirates of Penzance continues through April 1 at the Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$35. Call 510-835-8542 or visit www.berkeleyplayhouse.org.

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