After 139 years, Pirates of Penzance is still a satisfying combination of sweet and salty | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

After 139 years, Pirates of Penzance is still a satisfying combination of sweet and salty 

Saltbox Theatre Collective's production hits Sullivan's notes and lands Gilbert's punchlines.

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Rachael Nuckles

The genius of this 139-year-old comic opera lies in how gracefully Gilbert and Sullivan are able to have their cake and eat it too. Sullivan fills the show with sugar-a surfeit of sweet, innocent, very hummable tunes—and then Gilbert sprinkles on lots of salt, barbed lyrics that wittily undercut Sullivan's sentimentality.

This charming ambivalence extends to the show's story and characters. Frederic, the show's good-hearted protagonist, wins us over with his overly correct, very Victorian sense of propriety even as he's lampooned for the awful choices he makes for the sake of duty. Likewise, the show's pirates are lovable rogues, at once endearing and threatening, bloodthirsty and cowardly.

The beauty of Saltbox Theatre Collective's shoestring production lies in how much they buy into both sides of the show, the side that mocks British manners and mores and the side that revels in them. Similarly, director Brian Fruits and vocal music director Charles Brown have done yeoman's work coaxing above-average to superb performances from their large, non-Equity ensemble (the program lists 28 performers in the cast), which proves adept at both Sullivan's gorgeous tunes and Gilbert's complex lyrics (enunciated clearly enough that we don't miss a quip).

Not all of the performances are equally fine. Some pirates overplay their roles, ruining the comedy by trying too hard. But Ryan Smetana and Alexandria Rust are quite winning as the lovers at the center of the story. And Brian Bengston is the very model of a perfect major general.   v

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