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'Pirates' brings music, humor, but 'no plot' to Summer Youth Theater
Ask Jennifer Glenn about “The Pirates of Penzance,” and you’ll get an unusual answer.
“Well, there’s absolutely no plot to it,” she says of the classic Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.
Glenn and about 60 young theater students tackle the airy, musical farce this weekend in the first installment of Lawrence Arts Center’s Summer Youth Theater.
The story concerns young Frederic, who has just completed his indentured servitude to a misfit band of pirates. He plans to turn on them and slay them all once he is free. But there’s a complication.
“According to the contract, he’s indentured to the pirates until his 21st birthday,” Glenn explains. “But Frederic was born on February 29, so he only has a birthday every four years. Despite being 21 years old, he’s got to serve for 16 more birthdays.”
Frederic falls in love with Mabel (in the space of a single song, Glenn notes), the daughter of a British major-general. He is torn between his love for Mabel and his duty to the pirates.
“That’s it,” Glenn says of the plot.
The show is anything but dull, though. Like all Gilbert and Sullivan shows, it’s ridiculous and very funny. Between a screwball band of pirates, Keystone Cops, and a major-general with enough daughters to marry to an entire ship of pirates, there’s plenty of hilarity.
The original operetta is approximately two-and-a-half hours long and is almost entirely sung. Neither feature sounds like a good fit with performers ages 8 to 14. The Arts Center selected an adaptation that handles those problems.
“All of the songs are shortened, and some of them are cut,” Glenn says. “And a lot of the songs where plot is given out have been changed to dialogue, so it’s easier to understand. It’s really a great script. It keeps all the humor but makes it accessible to kids performing it and kids in the audience.
“Plus, it only runs an hour, and there’s no intermission.”
If Gilbert and Sullivan are famous for something other than ridiculous, largely plotless musicals, though, it’s wordy songs that require good diction. That can be an issue with kids, too.
“Some of them just weren’t used to having to really pronounce their consonants,” Glenn says. “They’d sing a line, and I’d say, ‘What?’ to let them know they needed to enunciate more. And we’ve just been hitting the consonants every day to get them focused on it.”
Glenn notes there are plenty of highlights. She added a comedy bit with the cops chasing a band of orphans, there is something happening onstage whenever there is music, and the show’s most famous number — “The Very Model of a Modern Major-General” — is captured perfectly by her cast.
“Other than that, it’s bunch of kids doing Gilbert and Sullivan,” she enthuses. “What could be better than that?”
“The Pirates of Penzance” plays June 13 and 14 at 7 p.m. and June 15 at 3 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 785-843-2787 or online at lawrenceartscenter.org.
Full disclosure: John Phythyon is a paid instructor in the Summer Youth Theater program.