CAMBRIDGE — Summer is upon us. Time to empty your head and take off for the beach.
If you can’t make it to a place with actual sand, the next best destination might be the beach party going on now at Oberon, where the American Repertory Theater is presenting a spirited, affectionate, and nearly irresistible sendup of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance’’ by the Hypocrites, a Chicago-based troupe.
Of course, there’s plenty of whimsy already baked in to the original. Helmed with brio by Sean Graney, an Emerson College graduate and Saugus native who is the founding artistic director of the Hypocrites, “Pirates of Penzance’’ simply takes the cheerfully inane spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta and goes it one better, or worse, depending on your point of view.
PIRATES OF PENZANCE
Graney and Kevin O’Donnell, who adapted the operetta, have dropped “The’’ from the title, but W.S. Gilbert’s elaborately witty wordplay is very much intact, and so is Arthur Sullivan’s sprightly, romping music. Apart from some amusing interpolations of brief snatches of contemporary songs, “Pirates of Penzance’’ displays a surprising fidelity to the original 19th-century score and storyline.
As for the performances, attire, and general vibe, though . . . Well, to borrow a phrase from another composer: Anything goes. And precious little of it is Victorian. When Frederic (Zeke Sulkes) belts out “Now for the pirates lair!’’, he does so from atop the bar at Oberon, where he pulls a few rock-star moves, complete with guitar solo. His beloved, Mabel (Christine Stulik) vigorously strums a banjo as she warbles “Poor wand’ring one,’’ wearing a pair of large white eyeglasses that make her resemble Andrea Martin’s Edith Prickley character from “SCTV.’’ (Mabel and Frederick duck behind a curtain during the song for some hanky-panky, and when they emerge, he has her banjo, and she has his guitar. They hastily switch back.)
The terminally virtuous Frederic wears an eyepatch that he dramatically casts aside when he renounces piracy for good (or so he thinks). Frederic is about to turn 21, and thus gain freedom from the band of soft-hearted (and –headed) pirates to whom he has been indentured. But it turns out that he was born in a leap year, and so he is, technically, only 5, so back to the pirate fold he must go.
Much of the fun of this “Pirates,’’ which is part of the Emerging America Festival, comes from Alison Siple’s costumes. The Pirate King (Robert McLean) is decked out in a white sailor’s cap he appears to have borrowed from Popeye, with the word “KING’’ helpfully written on the brim, and a cigarette holder that is practically the length of a sword is clenched between his teeth. The Major General (Matt Kahler) wears an imposing helmet, a white swallow-tail coat (so far, so good), and . . . a pair of shorts.
And what of Ruth (also played by Stulik), the pirates’ maid, who long ago, while working as Frederic’s nursemaid, had misheard Frederic’s father’s instructions that the boy be apprenticed to a pilot? Why, she is an accordion-playing vision in curlers, with a green flipper on her right foot, scuttling about the stage like Groucho Marx, wielding her hands like crab claws. Attempting to woo Frederic with the promise of erotic delights to come, Ruth displays a red and black bustier, but he somehow does not succumb.
As Kahler strode through the audience just before launching into the famous patter song, “I am the very model of a modern Major-General,’’ he said: “You know what’s coming, don’t you?’’ Yes, we did, but that didn’t make Kahler’s ebullient rendition, or this inspired production, any less enjoyable.
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.