Organized Confusion | “Pirates of Penzance” @ Pasadena Playhouse

Pirates of Penzance (Pasadena Playhouse)I’ve enjoyed the music and the story of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s The Pirates of Penzance ever since I saw the Los Angeles production of the New York Shakespeare Festival version in 1981, with Pam Dawber, Andy Gibb, Barry Bostwick, and Jo Anne Worley in the roles made famous in New York by Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith, Kevin Kline, and Estelle Parsons. I’ve listened to the New York cast album of that show until it was etched in my brain. So when I learned that the The Pasadena Playhouse (FB) was presenting Pirates, my interest was peaked — peaked enough to overcome a slight bias I’ve had against going to the Playhouse since the bankruptcy in 2010 and the style of the Sheldon Epps era (note: this wasn’t against the few shows I’ve seen; more against just getting tickets and potentially subscribing). So I started exploring tickets…

… and I quickly discovered that, just as the NYSF version of Pirates was very much unlike your father’s D’Oyly Carte operetta ; this version of Pirates was going to be very much unlike my generation’s NYSF version. Oh, the basic story was the same, but the staging — it was staging for a non-traditional generation. This was made clear when booking tickets, and I learned that this wasn’t a proscenium show (and the Playhouse is a proscenium theatre). This show was being advertised as a beach party; all of the traditional seats in the theatre were not being used. The action would take place in the audience, and there would be seating in and around the stage, with bleachers around the action. What?!?!?!?‽‽‽ Totally unsure of where I might be sitting, we booked tickets in what was being called the Promenade. We even got tickets with a seat number and everything. You can see the warped seating chart a little lower down in this writeup. The top is the back of the actual stage; the bottom is the entrance to the auditorium.

We saw the show yesterday afternoon, and discovered what they had done to the theatre. They had erected a platform over most of the normal seating and the stage. There were bleachers on the side and on the stage, with a dock structure and a raised platform with a kiddie pool over what would be approximately rows L-N of the audience. There was a tiki bar serving drinks throughout the show, and a few benches surrounding ball pits filled with beach balls. The atmosphere was fun and frivolity, and … yes … this was a beach party. That “Promenade” seat? Those seats were around and on the stage — yes, you could sit anywhere that wasn’t a formal seat with a back.  On a bench. On the dock. On the floor. In a kiddie pool. You just had to be prepared for an actor to point and you and move you out of the way, and you could just go and sit anywhere else. It was organized mayhem, unlike anything I’ve ever seen at the Pasadena Playhouse (which is normally quite staid) — and almost unlike anything I’ve seen in any other theatre (we’ll we did sit on the stage in La Mirada’s Carrie, but that was very different). During the show, the actors were in and around you, standing directly in front of you, interacting with the audience, playing with the kids, making audience part of the actors at times. Before the show, they were wandering around, playing all sorts of songs (including TMBG), and throwing balls at the audience, and generally having a fun time.

Pirates Seating ChartSo as the show started we had no idea what to expect. We were sitting on a bench next to a ball pit near the dock (essentially, just to the right of the words “The Dock” on the image to your right, near the L of the dock). There are times we moved. There are times the performers were right next to us. It was non-traditional, and it was a hoot.

The performance itself stuck to the traditional Pirates narrative; which is summarized in a shorter form here; and which R&H licensing summarizes as “When the hero of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE was but a boy, his father instructed his nurse to have him apprenticed as a pilot. She thought he said ‘pirate’ and thus the zany troubles began.” Some songs were converted to recitative; and of course the songs added from other shows for the NYSF version weren’t there. The performance ran just about 80 minutes, with one one-minute (yes, one-minute) intermission. There were a few interpolations of modern songs that worked really, really well.

This truly was organized, improvised, mayhem. But the best mayhem is well-planned, and so credit here goes to Sean Graney (FB), the director (and artistic director of The Hypocrites (FB), who developed this show); Andra Velis Simon (FB), the musical director; Katie Spelman (FB), the choreographer; Miranda Anderson (FB); the production stage manager; and Nikki Hyde (FB), the assistant stage manager. I include the latter two because they were on stage, dressed as life-guards, making sure the action went where it was supposed to go. This team kept the show on focus and moving forward, in and around the great distraction that an unpredictable audience could be.

As for the actors, they had an even harder job, for they were also the orchestra — using almost any instrument you can think of. Guitars, banjos, ukuleles (I don’t think a ukulele has been on stage at the Playhouse since Radio Gals in 1992), spoons, clarinets, flutes, mandolins, fiddles, saws, accordions …. you get the idea. There was also sharing of roles: the actress playing Mabel also played Ruth, and both the daughters and the pirates, at times, became the police officers. The cast consisted of Doug Pawlik (FB) [Freddy]; Shawn Pfatsch [Pirate King, Major GeneralUS]; Matt Kahler (FB) [Major General]; Dana Omar (FB) [Ruth / Mabel]; Leslie Ann Sheppard (★FBFB); [Daughter, Ruth/MabelUS]; Amanda Raquel Martinez [Daughter]; Tina Muñoz-Pandya (FB[Daughter]; Lauren Vogel (FB) [Pirate]; Mario Aivazian (FB) [Pirate, Pirate KingUS, FreddyUS]; and Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo (FB) [Pirate]. All of them were great and clearly having the time of their life (and loving the interaction with the audience). A few notes and thoughts: Pawlik gave Freddy just the right amount of youthful naivete and bravado to make things work; Pfatsch kept evoking Bostwick/Kline in my head, but he played with the role in a very different way that was a joy to see. Kahler handled Modern Major General well, and I loved the interstitial from the daughter. I liked Omar’s dual characterization and her switching back and forth; she had a lovely voice — plus, she played the banjo and the accordion — a skill that will earn her tens and tens of dollars (and she better keep her car locked). The daughters were cute (especially with the moustaches), and I wish I had known that Sheppard was a knitter (my wife had her knitting there). Of the pirates, my eye was drawn to Vogel both for her voice and musical skills, as well as how she was having fun playing with her role. But all of these actors were just great and a joy to watch.

I’ll also note that this is one of the few productions I’ve seen at the Playhouse that didn’t have a 100% Equity cast; I don’t know if they are getting Equity cards from this show. AEA is a bit controversial here in Los Angeles with what they did to the intimate theatre scene, and I’m hearing rumblings they are going after membership companies next (with plans to have local minimum wage laws take precedence over AEA agreements/codes). I’m glad I’m not an actor trying to decide what to do about my union.

Finally, turning to the technical and production side: Tom Burch‘s scenic design transformed the Playhouse, and was remarkably inventive with the docks, benches, pools, and everything else. I can’t think of a similar transformation of the venue in all the years we were there (going back to 1989). Incredible. This worked well with Maria DeFabo Akin (FB)’s properties design — not only all the beach balls and other set accouterments, but clever little tricks to signal characters, the cigarette holders, the rubber ducks, and such. Also supporting this was Alison Siple (FB)’s costume design; no credits were provided for the wig design that transformed Mabel. From down where we sat, Kevin O’Donnell (FB)’s sound design worked well; the LA Times indicated there might be a sound problem in the rafters of the bleachers. We didn’t see that. Heather Gilbert (FB)’s lighting design established the mood well. This version of Pirates was adapted by Sean Graney (FB), and co-adapted by Kevin O’Donnell (FB). Other credits: Joe Will [General Manager]; Chris Cook [Production Manager]; Brad Enlow (FB) [Technical Director]; and Davidson & Choy Publicity (FB) [Press Representative]Pirates of Penzance was presented/produced by The Pasadena Playhouse (FB) , Danny Feldman (Producing Artistic Director) in association with The Hypocrites (FB).

Pirates of Penzance has been extended at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB), now closing on February 25. Tickets are available through the Playhouse box office. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar, TodayTix, or LA Stage Tix. This show is a lot of fun and you’ll have a wonderful time — just don’t expect your father’s stuffy old theatre. Bring the kids and they’ll have a lot of fun as well — it is a great introduction to theatre in an environment where they don’t have to sit absolutely still.

This show has certainly made me rethink what I think about the Playhouse; I think we’ll be back more often. Certainly, with the dormancy of the Colony Theatre, we’ve been trying to find an affordable mid-size theatre. When we left the Playhouse, tickets were over $1000 per season, which was ridiculous. Their new options for membership certainly look more affordable; now they just need a reliable show mix.

Speaking of show mixes: The Ahmanson has added Ain’t Too Proud, a musical on the Temptations, to their 2018/2019 season, and they still have two shows to announce (see the end of the paragraph). It is looking even more likely that we’ll add that subscription, if we can get the cheap seats. As for the Pantages, they announce on Tuesday. As I wrote in my Aladdin writeup: We already know that Dear Even HansenCome From AwayFalsettos, and The Play That Goes Wrong will be going to the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). What does that leave for the Pantages, as they don’t produce their own. Here are my guesses: BandstandAnastasia, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are highly likely; so is the Miss Saigon revival. So would Groundhog Day, except they just cancelled their tour. If A Bronx Tale had announced a tour, it would also be likely. Ditto for Hello Dolly. Lesser possibilities are Amazing Grace, or A Night with Janis Joplin. In terms of potential retreads, I could see them bringing in the current Les Miz tour, and possibly the Fiddler on the Roof,  Lion King or Wicked tours, if they are still on the road. Also known to be going on tour/on tour, and thus possibilities for retreads, are Cats and Phantom, as they will draw in crowds and haven’t been in LA recently. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 has announced a tour, but I think the Pantages is too large for them. I could see them doing the Ahmanson. As for the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), which has two slots to announce, I predict that one will be a show in development, and the other will either be Natasha, Pierre, … , or some form of dance or ballet, like the Matthew Bourne stuff that they’ve done recently.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

February starts with the Cantor’s Concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom (FB). The following weekend brings our first Actors Co-op (FB) production of 2018: A Walk in the Woods. Mid-week brings opera: specifically,  Candide at LA Opera (FB). That is followed the next weekend by the first production of the Chromolume Theatre (FB) 2018 season, Dessa Rose. The month concludes with  James and the Giant Peach at the Chance Theatre (FB) in the Anaheim Hills, and tickets for Dublin Irish Dance Stepping Out at  the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).

March was supposed to start with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner, but that shifted back a week, so we’ll go to it after our first show in March, the LA Premiere of the musical Allegiance at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (FB). This is followed by a HOLD for Steel Pier at the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB). The penultimate Friday of March was to bring Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), but that has shifted to June and that weekend is currently open. The last weekend of March is open for theatre, but there will be the Men of TAS Seder.

April looks to be a busy month. It starts with Love Never Dies at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) [as an aside, there was just a great interview with Glen Slater, the lyricist of that show, on Broadway Bullet that is well worth listening to]. The second weekend brings A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend brings The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)), as well as our annual visit to the Original Renaissance Faire. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB). Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018! We may also be adding an  Ahmanson Theatre (FB) subscription, given their recent announcements regarding the next season.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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