The Pirates of Penzance

Though the Utah Shakespearean Festival folks would have you believe otherwise, festival founder Fred C. Adams is NOT the best reason to see “The Pirates of Penzance.”

Adams, who plays the spritely Major-General Stanley and is appearing onstage at the festival for only the second time in 40 years, is delightfully foppish in the role. He has said the part seems written for him (“an old, fussy man”), and his cartoon-character energy seems appropriate indeed.

But even more comedically precise in their performances are Brian Vaughn as the Pirate King and Laurie Birmingham as Ruth, nursemaid to pirate apprentice Frederic. The stage crackles with comic electricity whenever one of them appears; scenes they have together are all the more wonderful.

The entire production, directed by Russell Treyz, is as adorably silly as Gilbert and Sullivan could have imagined. The Major-General’s wards’ “Climbing over rocky mountain” song is funnier than it usually is, thanks to choreographer Derryl Yeager, who has the girls scuttling about like ducklings and using parasols like dainty appendages. The band of tenderhearted, non-murderous swashbucklers, too, benefit from Yeager’s knowledge that if pirates are dancing, it’s funny.

Frederic (Glenn Seven Allen), newly released from his obligation to the pirates, falls in love with Mabel (Kyra Himmelbaum). Meanwhile, his former associates plan to forcibly marry Mabel’s six sisters, until the Major-General appeals to their inordinate sense of fair play by declaring himself an orphan (for who would harass an orphan?).

The Pirate King and Ruth, however, have Frederic cornered with a new revelation: He was born in Leap Year on Feb. 29, which means he has technically had only five of the 21 birthdays he was supposed to spend in the pirates’ service. His sense of duty (just as strong as the pirates’ sense of fair play) leads him to return to their side.

It’s a celebration of word-play and puns: “pirate” and “pilot” sound alike, as do “orphan” and “often,” and much ado is made of that. No matter how frequently one hears certain rhymes in the lyrics, they remain clever. This cast is quite adept at enunciating, so every twist of the language comes across clearly. Even the inherent weaknesses in the libretto are played with: In one amusing moment, the Pirate King himself grows weary of the repetitive nature of Gilbert’s lyrics.

“The Pirates of Penzance” is such a light, frothy show that it has the potential of wearing thin before it’s over. This tendency is not helped here by the several segments that lack the humor they ought to have (the scenes involving the local police are particularly unengaging), nor by an elaborate suit-of-armor joke that is grossly overdone.

When it’s good, though, it’s very good. And Fred Adams really IS the very model of a modern major-general.

There was much hoopla surrounding Fred Adams' presence in the show. In 40 years of producing the festival, it was only the second time he'd taken the stage, and he's a much-loved figure in those parts. So it's understandable why, when he came onstage for the first time in "Pirates," he might pause a moment, anticipating applause. However, on opening day, it did not come, and after an awkward second, he continued as if he had never expected anything anyway.