DC Metro Theater Arts Review: ‘The Pirates of Penzance (or the Rascals of the Rappahannock)’ at Riverside Center

By Julia L. Exline - May 29, 2019

Riverside Center of the Performing Arts reprises Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, a two-act comic operetta that was first produced in December of 1879, and remains in production to this day! Director and Adaptor Catherine Flye gives the show (originally set in Cornwall) a local spin by placing the action on the banks of the Rappahannock River and offering the revised title Rascals of the Rappahannock.

Scenic Designer April Joy Vester sets the stage with a docked pirate ship, while lighting designer Michael Jarett and sound designer Billy Timms use nuanced cues to create the swampy, muggy atmosphere that our region is (unfortunately) well-known for. The locale switch is most prominent in costumes designed by Tom Hammond. While the expected pirate attire is there, it’s the exaggerated British and American styles from the late eighteenth century that highlight the switch and give the adaptation its legs. The technical elements remain crisp and professional, as I’ve come to expect from Riverside productions, but the real draw is the live orchestra, directed by Joe Walsh. The music is no less than Broadway quality, and that experience alone is worth the ticket price.

A young man named Frederic, played by a bright Samuel Keeler, is all too eager to leave his band of inept pirates, to whom he was apprenticed until his 21st birthday. He assures them that, while he loves them all individually, he despises them as a whole, shouting, “you are too tender-hearted!” After he leaves them, he meets a group of sisters and grabs their attention with his aria, “Stop, Ladies, Pray!” He falls in love with one of the sisters, named Mabel (Claire Leyden). Leyden showcases a brilliant vocal range with her aria, “Poor Wandering One!” and receives enthusiastic feedback from the audience as she draws out her notes–longer than I even thought a person’s lungs were capable! They enjoy a short-lived courtship, until Frederic finds his new life complicated when the pirates reappear and claim Mabel’s sisters as their unwilling brides.

The girls’ father, Major-General Boshington (Andrew Ross Wynn), takes advantage of the pirates’ known compassion for orphans and claims to be one, a lie that frees his daughters in the fast-paced, energetic song “I Am The Very Model of A Modern Major General.” The frenzied tongue twister is easily an audience favorite, and sure to stay in your head for days to come. However, just when things seem comfortably settled for Frederick, a major plot twist threatens to unravel his newfound life.

One of my favorite elements in this production was the original choreography by Linda Miller. The dancing was a pleasure to watch, especially in the number “A Rollicking Band of Pirates We,” where the dance moves were just as fun as the song title! The acting was also wonderful, with a special nod to David Jennings, whose cheeky portrayal of the wimpy-but-proud Pirate King riveted the audience’s attention, specifically in the number, “With Cat-Like Tread, Upon Our Prey We Steal.” Sherri L. Edelen also gets lots of laughs as Ruth, Frederick’s silly old nursery maid who can’t quite find her footing in this new setting. The actors are obviously having as much fun playing the ridiculous characters onstage as the audience is while watching them, and this shared revelry is everything that live entertainment strives for.

Outlandish and fun, Pirates of Penzance is a perfect escape, and made only more welcoming with the local twist that places the action in our own backyard. Turn off the news and give yourself a much needed mental break with an outing at Riverside– their timing couldn’t be better!

Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

The Pirates of Penzance (or the Rascals of the Rappahannock) runs through July 7th, 2019 at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts– 95 Riverside Parkway, Fredericksburg, VA. To purchase tickets, call (540) 370-4300 or go online.