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.