[The Free Lance-Star] Riverside's 'The Pirates of Penzance' gets a Fredericksburg-themed hook


May 22, 2019

Arrrrr, matey. Let’s go on a pirate-filled adventure, shall we?

Don’t worry, this one isn’t dangerous or life-threatening like you’ll find off the Somalian coast. Instead, it’s a beloved comic operetta hitting a local stage and being customized with familiar places and people galore.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance—The Rascals of the Rappahannock” opened at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday and runs through July 7.

“The story is as old as time—it’s been around forever, and people still absolutely love it,” said Patrick A’Hearn, producing artistic director at Riverside. “For our regulars that say, ‘You all never do any Gilbert and Sullivan,’ this one’s for you. It’s a wonderful way to kick off our 22nd year at Riverside.”

The first “Pirates” performance can be traced back to 1879, and over the years (well, decades upon decades), the story has taken multiple forms, spanning varying stage adaptations, operatic TV specials and movies, like 1983’s hit starring Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt.

The story itself zooms in on a young pirate apprentice, Frederick, who leaves his band of pirates (before he’s supposed to) and falls in love with Mabel, the daughter of the pirates’ nemesis. The show is full of laughter, charm, patriotism and is light at heart.

Locals will notice a very Fredericksburg theme throughout the show, with the story set on the banks of the Rappahannock River and it paying homage to places like Ferry Farm and local icons like George Washington (aka George Boshington in the show). The set itself is elaborate, with rocks, water, a huge ship dominating throughout and a dock-like structure jutting out into the audience.

“When there is a lot of nonsense, wittiness and slapstick comedy, precision is so key,” said A’Hearn. “But, [our director] absolutely nails it and so does the cast. And, while there are tributes to the area, this is the ‘Pirates’ storyline that folks are used to seeing.”

Guiding the cast of approximately 20 is regional theater extraordinaire, Catherine Flye. This marks the Riverside directing début for the Falls Church resident and the fifth time overall that she has directed a “Pirates” production. Her prior stint with the show, at the Folger Theatre in D.C., resulted in a prestigious Helen Hayes award nomination.

“I love Gilbert and Sullivan’s comedy ... they are so clever,” said Frye. “Really not much has changed in the world, since this show débuted. Many of the puns, satire and comedy are appreciated the way they were back then. These days, we live in a political mess, so no matter what your feelings are, it’s a nice relief, an escape and a romantic story.”

With her acclaimed Folger Theatre show, Frye also incorporated a colonial vibe. Whereas this show is set in a King George III-era Fredericksburg, her prior show centered on Mount Vernon.

Frye and A’Hearn both agree that, in addition to a lovable storyline, it’s the music that sets this production apart. Among its most famous musical numbers—some of which you’ll still hear on modern commercials—are “With cat-like tread, upon our prey we steal,” “Oh, better far to live and die,” “Poor wand’ring one,” and “I am the very model of a modern Major General.”

“Many people will walk into this show not thinking they know many of the songs, but they will recognize a few,” said A’Hearn. “Among many wonderful voices, Mabel [played by Claire Leyden], has one of most stunning voices that will blow people away. The combination of our regulars who are terrific and new people that have joined the cast makes for quite some talent and texture.”

“Pirates” marks Leyden’s first show at Riverside as well. The New York native saw an audition notice back home, is a lifelong fan of Gilbert and Sullivan’s work (she’s been a part of the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players group) and thought it was a match made in heaven.

“[Mabel] is a ton of fun. She kind of explodes on the scene, hits all these flashy high notes and it’s great to watch her love story with Frederick unfold,” said Leyden, a soprano. “The show is full of light and laughter and will have you thinking about your place as a U.S. citizen and within our world.”

While Riverside’s 22nd season is starting with a classic piece, the theater remains on the frontlines of modern theater in our area. And for that and more, this show’s worth the voyage.

Jesse Scott is a freelance writer and Fredericksburg native.