Updated: Feb 16
Amid drama and tragedy at the 2021 Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, pirates are lurking. And they sing. The festival’s staging of Gilbert & Sullivan’s musical The Pirates of Penzance, continuing through Oct. 9, will leave you astonished at the quality of singing even as you chuckle at the puns and wordplay of the songs. The festival players seem to revel in the zany plot and characters, offering a refreshing break from normality.
In addition to the singing, this production’s choreography stands out as particularly pleasing and creative. Choreographer Cassie Abate—who also directs—harmoniously animates each character during every number, often using props, maximizing our visual pleasure and complementing or even elevating the vocals.
Fun costuming by Bill Black—boots, long coats, and looted jewelry for the pirates, rainbow-hued dresses with twirly skirts for the major-general’s daughters—add to our visual engagement. And an abstractly art-deco scenic design by Jo Winiarski, along with lighting and sound effects, successfully suggest a ship, beach, and roof of a moonlit chapel overlooking the water.
The story, set in Victorian-era England, follows Frederic (a warm Jalon Matthews), an orphaned boy accidentally apprenticed to a band of pirates by his nursemaid Ruth (gamely played by Marlene Montes) until his 21st birthday. Going ashore newly freed, Frederic espies women other than Ruth for the first time—the seven young daughters of Major General Stanley frolicking and singing on the beach. But Frederic chivalrously reveals his presence before they start taking off their shoes.
The plot, such as it is, unfolds from there, mostly conspiring to have Frederic end up with Mabel, one of the seven young women performed by Cecilia Iole, who plays up her ridiculously (in a good way) high and mellifluous soprano voice. Along the way, we are held in thrall by the Pirate King (Rhett Guter, who owns the part) and his crew, as well as Major-General Stanley himself (Richard R. Henry).
Henry gives his character enormous presence on stage, fitting for the role but also grounding the production, helpful for such a fluffy play. Henry excels at the trial-by-singing that is “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” never missing a word. And it’s delightful to see his regal character clutching a teddy bear in the second half when he can’t sleep, worried about the pirates.
Ian Allred also steals the show in the second half as the Sergeant of Police brought in to arrest the pirates with his keystone cops. Channeling comic actor John Cleese, Allred holds himself physically stiff yet flexible at the same time, his stalwart facial expressions also revealing his trepidation at the task.
The only technical issue that mars the enjoyment is the slightly off-balance sound that favors the music over the vocals. This may be due to the theatre’s speakers being situated on the sides, so a person sitting in the wings might hear more orchestra than singing. The show itself may also start off a bit weakly given that it’s late in the festival’s season, but things get rollicking once the sisters enter the stage
The Pirates of Penzance is just the ticket for something completely different, unabashedly frivolous, with engaging vocals and choreography. The musical is a paradox, to take a word from one of the songs—something that shouldn’t hold together but does, with music and lyrics so charming it hardly matters what happens. The players seem to know and embrace that, and you're guaranteed to have at least one song stuck in your head as you leave the theatre smiling.
The Pirates of Penzance continues at the Utah Shakespeare Festival through Oct. 9, with performances Wednesdays through Saturdays. Run time is 2 hours, with intermission. Visit Bard.org for tickets and other information, or call the box office at (435) 586-7878 or (800) PLAY-TIX. Tickets are $34 to $85, with discounts available for students, seniors, groups and military. Masks are required during the performance.