While winter weather never really rears its ugly head in Pasadena, it’s easy to dream of the summer beach season even amid the somewhat chilly temperatures of January. Yet the Pasadena Playhouse is about to help set the mood for summer magic with its new production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” which stages the classic Gilbert & Sullivan musical as an audience-interactive beach party, one complete with flying beach balls, rubber duckies, ukuleles, banjos, plastic swimming pools and a tiki bar.
The outrageously innovative concept is the brainchild of the Chicago-based theatrical troupe The Hypocrites, who have been touring the production nationally since 2010. According to director Sean Graney, the already lighthearted spirit of “Pirates” was a perfect fit for the radical reinvention.
“First, it’s such an awesome operetta and it’s very exciting,” says Graney. “Our company was searching for musicals to do and was looking in the public domain. When I read the libretto, it was hysterical, smart, funny, and listening to the music, I said I know we have to do this.”
After opening in Chicago, The Hypocrites took the show to New York for a successful run that resulted in much critical acclaim including a New York Times Critic’s Pick. With its sappy pirates, dewy-eyed damsels, bumbling bobbies and a stuffy Major General, Gilbert and Sullivan’s hilarious and hopeful farce follows the story of young Frederic, an orphan who has mistakenly been apprenticed to an ineffectual but raucous band of pirates, as he disavows the pirates’ way of life and falls for the beautiful Mabel.
The Playhouse will be completely transforming the layout of the theater for the first time in its history. All of the orchestra seats are being removed, and in its place there is a deck making the entire orchestra level of the theater a playing area with actors and audience sharing the space promenade style, with everyone brought together. Better yet, the tiki bar is open for business throughout the show.
“Ours is an 80-minute show because we cut some material out of it, and it has a 10-person cast with no orchestra because the actors play all their own instruments: guitars, violins, banjos, ukulele, mandolin, clarinet, accordion, toy piano, drums,” says Graney. “Basically they play anything you can play and move around while playing. A large portion of the audience gets to be onstage with the actors. And having beach balls to play with means it’s meant to be a celebratory experience the entire time.”
This might sound almost too distracting for audiences to concentrate on the show, but Graney assures that attendees will be able to both watch and participate at the same time with no problems.
“People can do more than one thing and still be engaged in the narrative,” explains Graney. “The information that they need to know is super clear and repeated often enough that most people don’t end up missing the story of it.”
The Hypocrites started performing 21 years ago in Chicago, mixing original productions with modernized adaptations of classic musicals. The American Theatre Wing, best known as the creator of the Tony Awards, presented The Hypocrites with one of the 2013 National Theatre Company awards.
The company’s smash-hit production of “Our Town,” directed by David Cromer, transferred in 2009 to Off-Broadway, Los Angeles and Boston. Since the company’s founding, The Hypocrites have produced over 60 mainstage productions and a dozen festival pieces, securing 31 Non-Equity Joseph Jefferson awards, six Equity Joseph Jefferson awards and two After Dark Awards.
“This production is like nothing you have ever seen,” states Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Danny Feldman. “When I saw it, I knew I had to bring it to Pasadena. Patrons will be surprised and delighted as they enter the Playhouse and see what an amazing yet temporary transformation it has undergone. In our 100-year history, no one has ever seen the Playhouse used in this way.”
“The Pirates of Penzance” runs Tues. through Feb 18 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $25 to $94. Call (626) 356-7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org.