[The Free Lance-Star/Culpeper Star Exponent] Review: A shipshape 'Pirates of Penzance' is swashbuckling fun at Riverside

By EMILY JENNINGS Culpeper Star-Exponent

May 29, 2019

Brilliant wit, successfully delivered, is a rare delight—to experience such wit, joyously sustained and sprinkled steadily over several hours may occur only a handful of occasions in a lifetime.

“The Pirates of Penzance,” onstage now at the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts in Stafford County, qualifies as one of those occasions—an opportunity to be avidly sought and relished by any intelligent music lover with a sense of humor.

W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s famous operetta by itself is enough to draw a crowd. Premiering in New York in 1879—and in London three months later—the show was an instant success, and has remained popular and frequently performed on both sides of the Atlantic ever since.

The critical comedic timing, precision of diction and soaring vocal demands required of performers by this play are well satisfied in the Riverside production, and as word spreads, will most certainly fill the theater’s seats far in advance of closing night on July 7.

Stealing the show with unabashed swagger, Andrew Ross Wynn as General Boshington delivers the play’s signature, tongue-twisting “I am the very model of a modern Major-General”—a song packed with preposterous rhymes, and lyrics added in spoofing the region’s George Washington heritage, referencing the infamous cherry-tree incident, Ferry Farm and more.

In fact, in keeping with the local Colonial-history ribbing, Riverside has bestowed its own alternate title to the show, “Rascals of the Rappahannock,” setting the action riverside, rather than on the rocky seashore of Cornwall in Great Britain.

Said “Rascals” are hardly such. The swashbuckling wannabes, led by their elegant Pirate King (David Jennings, sporting a swoon-inspiring Errol Flynn-like smile) can’t quite escape their aristocratic “noblesse oblige” in their piratical dealings, compassionately setting free any captives who claim to be parentless—effectively ending any potential profit from plunder.

As the merriment begins, Frederic (perfectly played by Samual Keeler), having reached his 21st birthday, is concluding his apprenticeship on the pirate ship, a position secured accidentally in his childhood by a hard-of-hearing nursery maid, Ruth (a hearty Sherri L. Edelen), who mistook her master’s command to make his son a pilot.

The ridiculous plot, progressing with the sheer joy of Gilbert’s cleverest lyrical routines and wordplay, is enhanced by some of Sullivan’s most soaring romantic melodies. This is evidenced poignantly with the entrance of Mabel (the lovely Claire Leyden), and her delightfully delivered coloratura offer to rescue Frederic from his uncivilized past (“Poor wandering one”).

Leyden’s powerful soprano is a pleasure, with Keeler a complementary equal. Their romantic duet “How beautifully blue the sky” is quite moving, while Mabel’s sisters are terrifically engaging, claiming not to listen in (“What ought we to do?”).

Of course, Frederic’s former mates appear and attempt to carry away (to marry, of course, no ill intent among this lot) the chorus full of sisters, but the grand entrance of the Major-General and his patter song dispels the pirates as he tricks them into letting him go. I’m sure you’ve already guessed how.

As the story continues, a loophole is discovered in Frederic’s contract, and duty-bound, he is once again caught up with the would-be cutthroats until a band of bumbling police officers—led to great effect by Riverside favorite Alan Hoffman as the Sergeant—are called upon to save the day. Which they would do, if only the women would stop describing the violence likely to come (“No, I am brave!”).

The action culminates with hilarity in the rousing pirates’ chorus “With cat-like tread,” as the pirate-hunting policemen fail to notice the entrance of their quarry in spite of the fortissimo dynamic that Sullivan demands.

With “Pirates,” the dinner theater’s 22nd season-opener, Riverside has outdone itself. Director Catherine Flye demonstrates her award-winning skill in this crisp, energetic production, bolstered by Joe Walsh’s outstanding music direction and excellent onstage orchestra. Precisely timed and executed choreography direction by Linda Miller rounds out a play that is brilliantly jubilant from beginning to end.

ejennings@starexponent.com  540/317-2986