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Monday, July 14, 2014

Whacky Pirates Take Over Toby's

The Pirates of Pittsburgh may be having an off-year, but The Pirates of Penzance, currently playing at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, looks sharp and is likely to have a strong summer.  This take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 good-humored, mischievous work is an enjoyable experience filled with frivolity and tinges of slapstick that will keep you laughing throughout. 

David Jennings (foreground) as Pirate King Photo: Kirstine Christiansen
The comic opera’s music was written by Arthur Sullivan and the clever libretto penned by his co-collaborator W.S. Gilbert.  The Pirates of Penzance was one of the duo’s most popular works—others including H.M.S. Pinafore, The Mikado, and The Sorcerer—and is one of the very few productions from that era still being performed. 

The show’s revival opened on Broadway in 1981 and ran for 787 performances.  It earned seven Tony Award nominations while capturing three including Best Revival plus winning five of eight Drama Desk Award nominations including Best Musical.
Five-time Helen Hayes nominee Mark Minnick ably directs and choreographs the Toby’s production.  As he always seems to do, Mr. Minnick stirs all the ingredients together in a terrific blend of staging, performing and pacing.  The ensemble moves about flawlessly with great quickness and purpose—an indicator of the show’s many strengths.
The Pirates of Penzance is a light-hearted story whose main theme throughout is obligation to duty.  It centers on Frederic (played by Nick Lehan) who upon reaching his 21st birthday is freed from his apprenticeship to a band of pirates who deep down are a bunch of softies.  He had been mistakenly given this indentured status by Ruth (Jane C. Boyle), a piratical maid, who was Frederic’s nursemaid when he was young.  Through an error in communication from Frederic’s father who wanted his son to be apprenticed to be a ship’s “pilot,” Ruth understood the word to be “pirate.”

He meets Mabel (Laura Whittenberger), the daughter of Major-General Stanley (Robert John Biedermann 125), and the two fall in love.  Ruth and the Pirate King (David Jennings) explain to Frederic that he was born on February 29; technically, he only has a birthday each leap year. His indenture states that he remains apprenticed to the pirates until his 21st birthday, and so he must serve for another 63 years. Bound by his own sense of duty, Frederic’s only comfort is that Mabel agrees to wait for him faithfully.
Also part of the storyline is that the Pirates of Penzance, all being orphaned, has a soft spot for other orphans and will free anyone captured if that status is disclosed.  Unfortunately for them, their reputation is well-known and those who claim to be orphaned are released making their efforts unprofitable.  Major-General Stanley had been captured by the pirates…well you can imagine what transpired.

Under the musical direction of Ross Scott Rawlings and his six-piece orchestra, the leads and ensemble turn in highlight-reel performances.  With every member of the cast blessed with talented vocal skills, it is providential that there are so many group numbers, which amplify the music with resounding success.
Hunky Nick Lehan, plays the role of 21 year-old (or 5 if you do the other math) Frederic with such cuteness one could melt. Solid acting abilities and a fantastic singing voice enhance his performance.  Mr. Lehan’s onstage chemistry with Laura Whittenberger as his love interest Mabel is effectively genuine and adorable. 
"The performances are as powerful as they are entertaining and makes for a wonderful summertime experience." 
Ms. Whittenberger owns a robust operatic voice that reaches notes that haven’t even been discovered yet.  Her renditions of “Poor Wandering One!” and “Sorry Her Lot” are worth the price of admission alone.  One would fear that her vocals are so powerful that anybody else would be cast under her shadow.  That was not the case as her duets with Mr. Lehan proved the combination melds beautifully with his clearly being up to the task.  The number “Stay, Frederic, Stay!” is illustrative.
David Jennings, who shined in Toby’s recent production of Spamalot, showcases his marvelous baritone as the swashbuckling, debonair Pirate King.  “Oh, Better Far to Live and Die,” a song he performed with the Pirates, is a standout.  “Now for the Pirates’ Lair” is another fine example.  His powerfully resonant speaking voice and commanding stage presence are evident throughout. 

Robert John Biedermann 125 (yes, that is his name) as Major-General Stanley is perfectly cast for the role.  Despite his lack of military knowledge (a related theme in H.M.S. Pinafore), the character displays his authoritative nature as well as his vulnerabilities.  Mr. Biedermann 125 skillfully performs the iconic number “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” the way I would suspect Gilbert and Sullivan would have hoped for.  It brought the house down.
Other cast members are outstanding as well.  Veteran actress Jane C. Boyle, who killed it at Toby’s Nunsense and Fiddler on the Roof, puts on another strong performance as Ruth.  Comedic, bouncy and with good quality vocals, Ms. Boyle is an excellent addition to the production.

David James as the Sergeant of Police is his usual sprightly self as he is full of misbehavior and camp.  He always keeps the audience laughing.  Jeffrey Shankle as the loveable pirate Samuel also turns in a fine performance.  Both sing splendidly and let their comic instincts come through in their performances.
Rounding out the talented ensemble that sang and danced so wonderfully and with great energy are Tina Marie DeSimone, CobyKay Callahan, Heather Marie Beck, Jeremy Scott Blaustein, MaryKate Brouillet, Ricky Drummond, Amanda Kaplan, Darren McDonnell, Ariel Messeca, Jonathan David Randle, Russell Sunday, Louisa Rose Tringali and Carl Williams.

The ensemble was neatly fitted in wonderful costumes designed by Eleanor B. Dicks.  An array of authentic pirate garb and keystone cops-like uniforms for the male characters and an assortment of scarlet red rompers with bonnets and colorful Victorian-era gowns for the seven daughters of the Major-General add great visuals to the spectacle.
David A. Hopkins designed a smart set depicting an isolated island with a pirate ship complete with a rope ladder, swings and mast for the first act and a beautifully crafted ruined chapel setting for the second act.  Coleen M. Foley was creative in designing the lighting effects.

This production of The Pirates of Penzance is brilliantly synthesized under the direction of Mark Minnick.  The performances are as powerful as they are entertaining and makes for a wonderful summertime experience.  Bring your appetite, too; Toby’s famous buffet has never been better.
Running time. Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.    #hocoarts

The Pirates of Penzance plays through August 31 at Toby’s The Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 3900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  For tickets, you may call the box office at 410-730-8311 or visit online.

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