You can't blame Bill Rauch for wanting to spice up The Pirates of Penzance. The 1879 Gilbert & Sullivan operetta is a frothy affair with plenty of rascally swashbucklers and dewy-cheeked maidens, but it's been so widely produced—and so widely referenced in pop culture—that it's natural the Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director would want to give it his own stamp. This Portland Opera staging is a reworked version of Rauch's widely praised 2011 production in Ashland, and as much as it's a whirling, crowd-pleasing showcase of lavish costumes, clever stage props and fizzy lyricism, it's also proof of the pitfalls of selectively updating a 135-year-old show. Some timing and amplification stumbles aside, it's frustrating to see successful parodic twists—as when the Pirate King (a great Daniel Okulitch) briefly adopts the hip-swiveling, twangy-voiced, lip-curling swagger of a certain other king—lurch into gags that thud like an anchor dropped on the deck. Take the ill-advised bit of break dancing from the police sergeant, or an exclamation of "Google it!" that might have been funny in the age of Netscape but today rings stale. Yet there is a tenderness here, with the song "Hail, Poetry" played for resonance rather than satire. As the Pirate King sings, "For what, we ask, is life without a touch of poetry in it?" Not a lot—but it would be so much more without clumsy attempts at the worm.
SEE IT: The Pirates of Penzance is at Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 241-1802. 7:30 pm Thursday and Saturday, May 15 and 17. $48.45-$174.70.