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Not Your Grandmother’s Gilbert and Sullivan

Reggae and calypso become part of a pirate plunder

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Watch the slide show above to join music director F. Wade Russo’s discussion of a new generation of Penzance pirates.

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! now being staged by the Huntington Theatre Company, 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.”

Pirates! (Or, Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d) runs at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., through Sunday, June 14. Tickets range from $20 to $82.50 and may be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the BU Theatre box office or at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion box office, 527 Tremont St., Boston. Patrons age 35 and younger may purchase $25 tickets (ID is required), and a $5 discount is available for seniors and military personnel. Student rush tickets are available for $15 at the box office two hours before each performance, and members of the BU community get $10 off (ID is required).

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

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