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Not Your Grandmother’s Gilbert and Sullivan

Return to stage: Reggae and calypso become part of pirate plunder


In the slide show above, music director F. Wade Russo discusses a new generation of Penzance pirates.

Hamlet’s line “The play’s the thing” is often quoted, but the marrying line of the couplet, “wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” usually vanishes. Hamlet was trying to trap his father’s killer, and theater large and small always tries to goad an audienceinspiration, agitation, contemplation, anything so long as there’s movement out there. All year, examples of that emerged in and around BU; this week, we revisit some of those “things.”

Fans of the 19th-century British songwriting duo W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan know that the political satirists often lifted material from their previous work. So it’s appropriate that in Pirates! (Or, Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d), a breezy adaptation of the 1879 comedic opera Pirates of Penzance, musical supervisor John McDaniel pirated a song from the pair’s 1882 Iolanthe.

“When Ed Dixon auditioned for the part of the Major General, he sang ‘The Nightmare’ from Iolanthe,” McDaniel says. “And we looked at one another and said, ‘That’s a fantastic song! Let’s steal it and add it to the show.’”

Conceived by director Gordon Greenberg, writer Nell Benjamin, and McDaniel, Pirates! the final show of the Huntington Theatre Company‘s 2008-2009 season, takes a startlingly fresh approach to a rather dated piece of theater. The setting has been transplanted from late 19th-century England to the early 18th-century Caribbean, and the Pirate King bears an uncanny resemblance to a contemporary Caribbean pirate, that scoundrel known off-stage as Johnny Depp.

The basic storyline remains: Frederic, an indentured servant to a band of jovial pirates, falls in love with Mabel, whose father is the Major-General Stanley. The plot includes one new element, a witch’s curse that forces the men to remain pirates unless they marry a virgin. No longer a shy and demure maiden, the inquisitive Mabel arrives in a hot-air balloon and carries a magnifying glass and a butterfly net. Ruth, Frederic’s nursemaid, has been transformed from an embittered hag into a bawdy wench.

Gilbert’s book and lyrics have largely been rewritten, and McDaniel has given slower tempos and lowered keys to many of Sullivan’s tunes to reflect the characters’ earthiness. “Tarantara” has a reggae vibe, and “A Policeman’s Lot” is now calypso. “It has a very defined island flavor, with lots of steel drums and marimbas,” McDaniel says. “You might find yourself craving a rum punch when you hear it.”

So does McDaniel think Gilbert and Sullivan would approve of the changes to their most famous work? “I think they would be pleased,” he says. “Somewhere, they’re smiling.”

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

This story originally ran May 26, 2009.

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