Gilbert And Sullivan Meet Mumford And Sons, Sort Of

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Well, he isn’t the very model of a major general. He’s got the military helmet, but he’s also sporting shorts, sneakers, kneepad, strumming a guitar and expressing himself more archly than any major general you’ve seen before, most likely.

In short, Matt Kahler is having a fun time in the Chicago-based Hypocrites’ production of “Pirates of Penzance” and you probably will, too, what with the beach balls floating around the American Repertory Theater, the invitation to join the actors on the beachfront stage, join the conga line, and even imbibe at the onstage bar. All the actors play acoustic instruments, mostly guitar and banjo, giving the soundtrack a Mumford and Sons feel.

It’s Gilbert and Sullivan, as they say, like you’ve never seen them before and that’s both good and bad. The production fits with A.R.T. artistic director Diane Paulus’s aim to expand the boundaries of theater, estimable on the face of it but sometimes a double-edged sword in practice.

This is certainly more fun than the dopey Depp-y Huntington production of a few years ago, its infectious spirit particularly alluring on opening night to the younger audience members, by which I mean those 5 to, oh, 25. The rest of us might have trouble getting out of those waterless swimming pools when the pirates come around to wade in the “water.”

Have no fear. You can sit in the traditional seats where, for the most part, you can just watch. It’s a little like Shakespeare’s Globe without the Shakespeare. Groundlings do have more fun, particularly those at the bar, but I decided to act my age, for once, and stay seated, sans drink.

Zeke Sulkes as Frederic (foreground) in "Pirates of Penzance." (Evgenia Eliseeva)
Zeke Sulkes as Frederic (foreground) in "Pirates of Penzance." (Evgenia Eliseeva)

Maybe that’s why at the one-minute intermission, about midway through, I started to think that even at 80 minutes I was ready for the pirates and the maidens and the major general and everyone else to wrap things up. There was nothing not to like — the troupe makes up for not having the best feel in the world for Gilbert and Sullivan’s vocals with spirited acting, particularly Kahler, Robert McLean as a Pirate King who looks like Hunter Thompson and Zeke Sulkes as Frederic, the orphan who becomes a pirate instead of a pilot. (You don’t really want a plot recapitulation, do you?)

Anyway, the problem is that it’s not a production that keeps surprising you. After a while that smile on your face — my face, anyway — feels a little more frozen as the gaiety seems to get a little more forced and all that running around feels like running in place.

As I said with the Lyric Stage Company’s production of “The Mikado” early in the season, I don’t know that Gilbert and Sullivan can really stand being dragged out of their time and place. They were who they were and I don’t think they are as malleable as, say, Shakespeare or Bach. I was hoping the Hypocrites and A.R.T. would convince me otherwise, and they did for about half an hour.

Still, it was enjoyable to watch them try. If the Hypocrites come back to Boston or Cambridge I’ll be there. And maybe I’ll have that drink.


Radio Boston talks to the cast.

Ed Siegel talks to Bob Oakes about "Pirates of Penzance," "On the Town," and "In the Heights."

Here's the A.R.T.s preview:

This program aired on May 20, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.