Arts & Theater

Theater review: Sacramento Theatre Company stages an awkward ‘Pirates of Penzance’

Michael RJ Campbell, left, is the Pirate King, Zak Edwards is Frederic and Martha Omiyo Kight is Ruth in Sacramento Theatre Company’s “The Pirates of Penzance.”
Michael RJ Campbell, left, is the Pirate King, Zak Edwards is Frederic and Martha Omiyo Kight is Ruth in Sacramento Theatre Company’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” Sacramento

Silliness abounds in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera “The Pirates of Penzance.” At least it should, because, in truth, the Victorian parody amounts to very little for contemporary American audiences.

The play’s goofy humor is everything, even in its current dullish staging at Sacramento Theatre Company. Director Michael Laun’s production seems to present the show as if being slightly ineptly staged in a high school gymnasium flanked with lush velvet curtains, barely populated but intentionally flimsy props and a clumsy actor or two.

But it’s difficult and unnecessary to flatten something already two-dimensional. The production sits awkwardly in a spot where it’s constantly winking at a self-aware cleverness we rarely experience.

Animating the stodgy production, though, is a sharp, energetic performance from newcomer Zak Edwards as the young hero, Frederic, the pirate apprentice. Edwards has the boyish handsomeness and solid vocal chops the role demands, plus a helpful dose of deadpan comic instincts keep his Frederic lively.

And Michael RJ Campbell’s bigger-than-life Pirate King hits the sweet spot of extravagant performance amid comic irreverence.

Also starring in this production are the smartly conceived original orchestrations by pianist and musical director Samuel Clein. The score is usually performed by small orchestras of between 10 and 16 pieces, but Clein has written arrangements for a quartet of a violin, a woodwind and percussion along with his piano. The complex music was beautifully played, and Clein’s minimal settings never felt small or lacking.

The story, which sends up Victorian-era values, concerns young Frederic ending his 21 years of servitude to a band of too-nice pirates. But there’s a catch that hangs up Frederic’s entrance to the outside world.

Frederic’s father had intended his son be apprenticed to a pilot but his nurse, Ruth (Martha Omiyo Kight), being hard of hearing, misheard, so Frederick was misdirected. Ruth is the only woman he’s ever seen. While she tells him she is beautiful, when Frederic sees a group of young women, all sisters, he realizes he’s been deceived and sends Ruth away.

Frederic falls in love with Mabel (the beautifully voiced Aviva Pressman), but his very English sense of duty ironically compels him against his best interests. The twists and turns of narrative make little sense. Even in its time, W.S. Gilbert’s lyrics admitted “the patter doesn’t matter.”

Gary S. Martinez as the Major-General delivers a suitably manic “Major-General’s Song” while Ryan Blanning makes a solid and endearing Samuel, the pirate lieutenant. Blanning also created the choreography.

Joseph Papp and the New York City Public Theater gave “Pirates” a modern tonal makeover in 1980, pushing a broader musical comedy style on the show, and its popularity swelled for new generations. In 2011 the Oregon Shakespeare Festival staged a dazzling, memorable version starring the Sacramento-raised Eddie Lopez in a breakthrough performance as Frederic.

“The Pirates of Penzance” has never been anything but cake and frosting, and while it still works as dessert here, it’s more perfunctory than inspired.

Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.

The Pirates of Penzance

What: The Sacramento Theatre Company production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 comic opera. Appropriate for all ages.

Where: 1419 H St., Sacramento

When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through May 17

Cost: $34-$38 (discounts for students, seniors, military, and groups)

Information: (916) 443-6722; sactheatre.org

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