PITTSFIELD — There is mischief in Mabel's eyes as she is played by Scarlett Strallen in John Rando's exuberant production of "The Pirates of Penzance" at Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage.
Mabel is one of eight daughters of that modern Major-General Stanley (David Garrison in a role-defining performance) and, like her sisters, she has led somewhat of a protected Victorian life. Ah, but the impulses that pulsed under the constraints of Victorian morality surge just under Mabel's skin and surfaces, as much as she dare — perhaps a bit more — when she encounters poor Frederic (a generally amiable Kyle Dean Massey). Frederic has been apprentice to a band of too-gentle-for-their-own-good orphan pirates, led by a swaggering Pirate King (Will Swenson in a big, bold performance that is often more about swagger than character) since he was a boy. He is due to be free of his duty when he turns 21 in only a matter of hours (until he is informed that because he was born on a leap day, he will not turn 21 until the year 1940).
The only woman Frederic has ever known is his devoted now middle-aged nursemaid and guardian, Ruth (an engaging Jane Carr), who has a vested interest in keeping Frederic away from women his own age.
For Mabel, Frederic is a Victorian rock star — a handsome, sexy young man and accessible. It doesn't take long for the hormones to flow with the energy of rushing rapids, as she flirts with him by the water, pledges her heart and — with her eyes radiating lustful anticipation — her body. It is clear, as she kisses him once, then again, then once again at their parting, that she cannot get enough.
It's a gem of a moment in a gem of a performance; one of several gems spread through a production that has some trouble getting started but which gathers momentum mas it moves along. The production fully finds its stylish footing in the second act, especially with the arrival of a small squad of policemen in the spectacular show-stopping "When the Foreman Bares his Steel," led by the remarkable Alex Gibson whose vocal and physical dexterity combined with a flawless sense of timing and expression bring this solidly crafted production to a whole other level. Choreographer Joshua Bergasse — whose work throughout is filled with whimsy — in many ways saves his best moves for the two second act constabulary numbers, the aforementioned "When the Forman Bares His Steel" and the following "When a Felon's Not Engaged in His Employment." If there were nothing else to commend in this production, these two numbers, and especially Gibson's performance throughout, are alone worth the admission.
This version of"Pirates" originated in the summer of 1980 at New York Shakespeare Festival's outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park and then reopened on Broadway in January 1981.
Rando captures this version's distinctly theatrical style which honors the traditions of D'Oyly Carte, who produced much of Gilbert and Sullivan's works in his Savoy Theatre within a more contemporary musical-comedy temperament that softens much of the political and social satire that would have appealed to Gilbert and Sullivan's audiences (although the notion of equating a band of ineffectual pirates with the peerage in the House of Lords has some contemporary resonances).
In addition to Gibson's Sergeant and his constables that Savoyard tradition is clearly evident in Garrison's splendid Major-General Stanley. Rando is a director with taste and an appreciation of style. He has a keen sense of proportion that is reflected not only in Bergasse's musical staging but also in Garrison's delivery of "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General." It's "Pirates'" signature piece. We're all waiting for this tour-de-force and Garrison doesn't disappoint, without exaggeration or inflated showmanship. It's an statement of bravura craftsmanship in a performance that is at once economical and full.
With the notable exception of Strallen's haunting rendering of "H.M.S. Pinafore's" "Sorry Her Lot," which has been inserted into this version, Rando's "Pirates" is at its best when it is at its biggest, those big, almost larger than life numbers that Rando's company embraces with wholehearted theatrical gusto; big balanced voices singing with bold assurance and action that finds the slightest pretext to create mayhem in the audience (one lucky woman in the audience at each show actually will get to share a scene on stage with the actors).
"Pirates " had its world premiere in New York on Dec. 31, 1879. It wasn't produced in London until April 1880 at the Opéra Comique, where it finally closed one day short of a year, by which time it was being performed in cities all across the United States.
Along with "H.M.S. Pinafore" and "The Mikado," "The Pirates of Penzance" has become one of the most frequently performed Gilbert and Sullivan works on both sides of The Pond. Looking at this production, it is easy to see why.
In a Berkshires theater season that has had a lot on its mind, there haven't been many opportunities to just kick back in a theater for two hours and not think about anything weighty; just relax. This is one of them.
What: "The Pirates of Penzance." Libretto by W.S. Gilbert. Music by Arthur Sullivan. Directed by John Rando; choreographed by Joshua Bergasse; music direction by Darren R. Cohen
With (partial): Jane Carr, David Garrison, Alex Gibson, Kyle Dean Massey, Scarlett Strallen, Will Swenson
Designers: Beowolf Borritt, scenic; Jess Goldstein, costume; Jason Lyons, lighting; Ed Chapman, sound; Leah Loukas, wig; Ryan Winkles, fight choreography
Who: Barrington Stage Company
Where: Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield
When: Now through Aug. 13. Evenings — Tuesday and Wednesday at 7; Thursday through Saturday at 8. Matinees — Wednesday and Friday at 2; Sunday at 5
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes
Tickets: call box office — 413-236-8888 — for prices (information also available online at barringtonstageco.org or in person at BSC box office — 30 Union St.