I'm convinced: The Pasadena Playhouse knows how to do their opening nights. Upon arriving at the theater, guests are welcomed and seated by a top notch hospitality team. This production instantly won me over when a taco was delivered to me at my seat. Talk about excellent service. The after parties are outside, under the moonlight on the historic patio. They are inclusive, they are free and the food and drinks are on point (although if the opportunity presents itself, they really should strike up an arrangement with Lucky Boy...jus' say'n...). This place knows how to roll out the red carpet and make everyone feel special and welcome. Other major theaters out there: take note and adjust accordingly. Danny Feldman is doing a lot of something right.
When I was fourteen years old, my father took me to a reasonably more traditional production of Pirates of Penzance at the Drury Lane Oakbrook. I would not say it was one of my favorite pieces, but it surely set the foundation for my understanding of Gilbert and Sullivan. YEARS later, I find myself at the Pasadena Playhouse for the transplant production of Chicago's very own Hypocrites take on the old classic. A few years back when the production was still developing, my good friend Ally had assistant directed it and had only marvelous things to say about her experience. When she and cast member Mario Aivazian were explaining the show's in-the-round/immersive staging to me over drinks at Steppenwolf's Front Bar two months ago, I was shocked. "That's not going to work for that venue," I told them. The Pasadena Playhouse is possibly the most traditional proscenium stage in all of California, so I was concerned for the style of show that was about to enter into this venue.
However, this "cold" January night in Pasadena, my friend Sarah (who is currently costuming this musical at her alma mater, Pepperdine University) and I walked into a house I never could have identified as the historic theatre. Surrounding the playing area in somewhat of a thrust-type arrangement, beachy folding chairs were laid out in rows, while the rest of the audience could move about the stage, sitting on benches, in kiddy pools, on top of raised levels, on the ground or literally anywhere they could fit. Beach balls glided through the air, glistening string lights hung overhead, musicians mingled about the audience and an on stage bar supplied especially boozy cocktails for the animated crowd. The atmosphere was high on fun, bursting with energy and excitement. Complete Spongebob Squarepants vibes. And the show that eventually transpired was an absolute riot. Every time the actors needed to move to a new space in the theatre, if you were sitting where they needed to be, you just had to fall out and move!
No matter where you look in this show, something is happening. Because the historical text is melded with modern design elements and even some contemporary references...it is not always clear what's going on. And I can't believe I'm saying this...but that's kind of ok. Sometimes I didn't know exactly what was happening in the story, but things move so quickly and the specticle is so fascinating that you get what you need. If I was a younger Isabella, maybe one of the kindergarten through fourth grade Isabellas, I would have had no idea what was going on, BUT I still would have been having the time of my life. There was an especially touching and beautiful moment in the show when a little girl (age 6?) seated in one of the kiddy pools where the actors were acting decided to stay and participate, instead of moving out with her family. Matt Kahler playing the role of the Major General nearly had his heart melted as he sung to her, while the two played with an itty bitty pirate rubber ducky. It was supremely cute and spontaneous. It was like those moments you live for, when the actors break character on SNL but everyone is still rooting for them because you can see what an amazing time they're having. And that's what's so fascinating about this production; these actors never know what kind of people they'll get in the audience and the show is different every night because of that. Which on the other hand made me realize how challenging this show might be with an audience not as willing to participate in the hilarity, and wonder whether demographically if LA were a more restrained audience than Chicago. These are the kind of theatre production questions that try my soul!
I should also mention that I thought Shawn Pfautsch was especially strong as the Pirate King. Very funny. Excellent comedic timing. Bravo. In a world of stuffy interpretations of this musical, he reminds us how funny this show actually is.
Does the show make me want to change anything about myself? No. But it is an artistic inspiration for its truly visionary inception and technical design. This is the kind of show I probably saw as a six year old that confirmed my career in the theatre. Even if you're holding back, even if you're not a "break the 4th wall' kind of person which I ABSOLUTELY AM NOT, I guarantee you will lighten up by the end of the show.
I am really sorry that I'm so late with these posts (a lot has been going on this month) but this is your last weekend to catch Pirates of Penzance at the Pasadena Playhouse; it closes on Sunday the 25th! Regardless of how you feel about the text, this is one that will really blow you away stylistically and design-wise. The Hypocrites have taken a beautiful risk with this one and I hope they will continue to own up to their innovative style in their future inceptions. As a lover of adaptations, I would love to create something like this! Check it out because I bet you have never seen anything like this.