By Chris Jones
2:19 PM CDT, September 6, 2012
Every theater seems to love "The Pirates of Penzance." The venerable Gilbert and Sullivan operetta has a Broadway pedigree, more hummable hits than "Mamma Mia," comic coppers singing "Tarantara-ra-ra," killer business involving a pun on the linguistic similarity between "often" and "orphan," the mother of all patter songs, many hilarious gags that remain remarkably unwilted by the passage of time, an exotic setting and a zesty hero in The Pirate King — relished by every macho, swashbuckling baritone this side of Shanghai.
And that's not even the best news. Thanks to the wonders of public domain, and thanks to Gilbert and Sullivan's great misfortune of living and working prior to Mickey Mouse and his corporate minders, "Pirates of Penzance" is free of royalties. Better yet, you can mess with it all you like. No furious estate will come breathing down your neck, nitpicking away. And mess with it, its presenters these days surely do.
In just the last few months, I've heard "I Am the Very Model of the Modern Major-General" in Lincolnshire, Stratford and Wicker Park. In Canada this summer, Ethan McSweeny made it all a play within a play. At the Marriott Theatre, David H. Bell turned it into a dance show. For the Hypocrites in Chicago, Sean Graney added a Tiki bar and plastic swimming pool.
But none — none — of those perfectly honorable productions can compare to the "Pirates" I saw Saturday evening on the Tall Ship Windy. You can be the most creative director in the world, but if you ain't got your Pirate King swingin' from an actual mast of a ship "at sea" on the churning waters of Lake Michigan, if you ain't dangling your Mabel within an inch of her landlubbing life, if your swordplay isn't drenched in actual Great Lakes foam, then you just ain't at the same table, mate.
Headed down Lake Shore Drive on Saturday, I noted the lack of other watercraft on Lake Michigan, this being remnant-of-Hurricane-Isaac day in Chicago. But the Windy pulled out on shiverin' schedule, a small tall ship, if you'll pardon the oxymoron, replete with a full-blown production of "Pirates" hidden in her bows.
A gimmick, I hear you think. Not at all. The singing, especially from Stephen Boyer and Michelle Perkowitz, was truly top notch. Brian Elliott is young for the Major General, but he was most amusing. The costumes were lovely and, it seemed, waterproof. The acting was most adroit and, given the way the ship was lurching, remarkably sure-footed. Given the confines of the ship, the piece plays out as an environmental show, with Ruth and the rest singing a few feet from your head.
There are a few distractions — one woman across from me looked like she might throw up at any moment — but they don't dampen the spirits of a 90-minute cruise that has a remarkably high percentage of the content of the show, does not camp up the show's gorgeous ballads and that competes, undaunted, with the Sea Dogs, the Navy Pier party cover bands and, of course, the high winds.
Aficionados will note that "Pirates" has parts set on dry land, but it's easy to imagine the Major General's inquisitive daughters treading, softly, into the pirates' actual boat. Since the police officer chorus was a little thin, passengers were pressed into service and handed policemen's hats, an adaptation that worked very nicely.
I've seen other shows at sea, but nothing quite like this. It was one of those only-possible-in-Chicago nights: a slew of actresses popping up from below deck like clowns exiting a car; actors dangling from real masts; the city's New World backdrop, partially shrouded by clouds, brooding in the rear as the Old World merriment played out joyously on board; and the fabulous array of talented performers constantly surprising the audience with what, in any other town, would be a cheap parody. I've always said nothing on Navy Pier compares with the offerings of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre; this show made me swallow my words.
This production was an experiment devised by Tall Ship Adventures of Chicago, co-directed by Emma Couling and outreach manager Jessie Mutz. This is Tall Ship Adventures' first theatrical production — the operation was hardly set up for publicity — and the company of actors doesn't even have a name. There are more shows this weekend, but tickets are already sold out. If Navy Pier was smart, it would find a way to keep this show up and running into the fall. It's precisely what the pier needs: Chicago-style authenticity, artistry and fun. It is, as the marketers say, a unique attraction.
"The Pirates of Penzance," by Tall Ship Adventures of Chicago, runs through Monday. Sold out; 312-451-2700 or tallshipwindy.com.