Maybe it was all the beach balls flying through the air ... or the guy with the guitar and the sweet, terry cloth leisure suit - but as soon as I walked onto the stage at Pasadena Playhouse it was clear that this wasn't going to be a traditional "Pirates of Penzance."
Instead, it feels sort of like crashing your friend's backyard pool party: there are tiki torches, blow up dolphins, kiddie pools. A bunch of hipsters dressed like it's the early 80's (think tube socks, tight OP shorts, sweat bands). They're roaming around with guitars, a mandolin, and an accordian playing ironic covers of pop songs.
The stage of the Pasadena Playhouse has been given over to this madness and it's kind of great.
The playing area is a platform that's built out over the existing seats. It’s a sort of a loose thrust stage surrounded on three sides by wooden bleachers - So the audience is sitting on what's usually the stage. But the real fun is in what the production calls "promenade seating": basically a series of benches, a low wooden pier, a couple of drink coolers, and those kiddie pools that audience members, with promenade tickets, are invited to sit in or on.
Before the show starts a cast member informs us that we can sit anywhere but don't get too comfortable, we're going to be asked to move because the action is going to happen, at moments, on these objects we're sitting on. So if a cast member points to us - we should get out of the way so the play can happen.
Oh, one more thing, our cast member points out, over there in the corner is the onstage bar and it'll stay open through the whole show.
Now Pasadena isn't known for it's particularly young, hip audience so I wondered how all these shenanigans would go over. I'm happy to report the audience was totally into it. When the retiree sitting across from me bonked me with a beach ball - I knew we were off to a good start.
The folks behind this fun are a Chicago theatre company called The Hypocrites and their Gilbert and Sullivan is true to the spirit if not the letter of "Pirates of Penzance."
Across 80 minutes (with a one-minute, yes one-minute, intermission) they tell a sort of ironically self-aware version of the comedic opera. It's an approach that both acknowledges and captures how absurd the original is. So surprisingly, the production has the possibility to entice both the purists who know every last lyric and the skeptics who never imagined they'd enjoy Gilbert and Sullivan.
Is it a perfect show? Far from it. The acoustics are a little challenging so if you're not in those promenade seats, you might have some trouble hearing. And as strong as the concept is, it flags a bit in the middle and you find yourself riding more on energy than storytelling. But it's got so much energy and it's such a joy to be with an audience and cast that's having fun that you can forgive the show's shortcomings.
And, worse comes to worst, that onstage bar does stay open the whole show (I checked).
"The Pirates of Penzance" plays at the Pasadena Playhouse through February 25th.
Photo credit: Jenny Graham/Pasadena Playhouse