Arthur Sullivan must be spinning in his grave.
He is the composing half of Gilbert and Sullivan, the 19th century English comic opera partnership whose Pirates of Penzance is this year's American Stage in the Park production. Sullivan's score, traditionally performed by an orchestra of strings, winds, brass and so forth, has been put through a musical wringer. The result is a cacophonous, incoherent swirl of sound that swamps the show.
This Pirates, directed by American Stage producing artistic director Todd Olson, is weirdly schizophrenic. On the one hand, the nonsensical tale of a reluctant pirate born in a leap year is staged in more or less conventional style with a cast that includes some interesting performers. But the treatment of the score by musical director Vince Di Mura, playing electronic keyboards and leading a five-person band under a candy-striped awning, is so maniacally over the top in a rock-jazz-country fusion sort of way that you have to wonder how much he and Olson really care about Gilbert and Sullivan.
American Stage has a 23-year track record of revising classics for picnickers in the park. Chronic theatergoers will remember (fondly) the punk-rock Macbeth or (not so fondly) the disco Twelfth Night. But unlike Shakespeare, whose plays are endlessly adaptable, Gilbert and Sullivan created a highly specialized genre all their own, not quite opera nor musical comedy. Their works resist meddling because of the very specific demands of the crazed wordplay of William S. Gilbert, whose misanthropic nature was perfectly balanced by Sullivan's sunny music.
It's not that Pirates, The Mikado, HMS Pinafore and the rest are particularly difficult. They have long been staples of amateur theater. However, if you're going to perform these works, you have no choice but to embrace their quirkiness, and not try to turn them into something they are not. Di Mura is a talented jazz and pop musician. His arrangements for the band contain many clever riffs — from keening Cajun fiddle to prog-rock power chords to ragtime — but they overwhelm the droll Victorian sensibility of what is happening onstage. The satire of Gilbert and Sullivan requires a deft touch that is sadly lacking.
From a commercial standpoint, it must have seemed like a good idea to do Pirates in the park. After all, it is one of the more accessible G&S concoctions, a hit on Broadway and an entertaining movie some 25 years ago with Linda Ronstadt, Kevin Kline and Rex Smith.
Then there's the Tampa Bay pirates angle, with Gasparilla being referenced in several scenes as beads are tossed to the crowd, never a good omen. There have been previous efforts to capitalize on Gasparilla — an opera, a couple of ballets — and they always flop.
What's most unfortunate about the mangling of Sullivan's score is that there is the making of an enjoyable Pirates here, with a pair of appealing young romantic leads, Zach Nadolski as the leap-year pirate Frederic and Gina Varchetto as Mabel.
Varchetto is the best thing about the show, a mere slip of a lass who makes her entrance in a skimpy swimsuit to belt out Mabel's soaring coloratura waltz, Poor Wand'ring One, and win over Frederic. Their ardent arias and duets are a pleasure (Sullivan's vocal arrangements, thankfully, remain essentially intact), especially when backed by Mabel's sisters, a lively girl group made up of Katti Christopher, Lauren L. Wood, Kathryn Ohrenstein and Kelly Sardina.
There is more fine chorus singing by the Pirate King (Darrel Blackburn) and his motley crew, whose wildly divergent costumes (by Frank Chavez) resemble those of a hair metal band. Steven Flaa is the sergeant who leads a cops chorus in the catchy refrain "Tarantara! Tarantara!''
The character parts of Pirates fare less well. Their devilishly tricky patter numbers, in which crisp diction is paramount, are undercut by the distracting din from Di Mura's band and the pitfalls of outdoor, microphone-dependent theater.
Jack Eddleman is Major General Stanley, father of Mabel and her sisters, and his famous song, I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General, was out of synch on Friday. While Eddleman paced the scene in mannered, idiosyncratic fashion, as surely he should, Di Mura and the band seemed intent on rushing him along. The words were sometimes incomprehensible, a cardinal sin in Gilbert and Sullivan. The Major General was supported by clever, bouncy choreography for the pirates, who drew figures in the air to illustrate the lyric about "the square of the hypotenuse.''
Jane Strauss has a delectable, scenery-chewing turn, rich in goofy stage business, as Ruth, the former nursery maid to Frederic. Ruth explains that she was supposed to apprentice her charge to a "pilot,'' which she misheard as "pirate,'' the first of several crucial verbal confusions in Gilbert's intricate libretto. But the gist of her story got lost in the topsy-turvy sound mix Friday, and anyone unfamiliar with the plot would likely be in the dark as to what exactly was going on.
For all its absurdities, Pirates does have a serious theme, involving Frederic's sense of duty. But it doesn't come across effectively in Olson's direction, which seems mainly concerned with getting the whole thing done in exactly two hours, including intermission. That's a shame, because in many ways, this is an impressive production, with superb lighting by Ben Williams and a handsome set (complete with Tampa Bay Bucs flag) by Olson and John Malolepsy.
But if park productions must be loud and frantic, with a rock beat, Gilbert and Sullivan was simply the wrong choice.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.