Arts & Entertainment

‘The Pirates of Penzance’ Sails the Comic Seas at Chalice Theatre

Chalice Theatre at the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Arlington is currently presenting Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” under the thoughtful direction of Catherine Aselford.  In this legendary comic opera, Frederick, a young man, reaches his twentieth birthday and wishes to depart to live on his own after having been brought up by pirates. However, an unexpected snag occurs which jeopardizes his escape into adulthood, resulting in comical conflicts throughout the opera. This is heightened by Frederick’s exaggerated sense of duty to both pirates and to bourgeois society. 

Comic elements are especially strong as conveyed by the Chalice Theatre cast. Steve Renard is quite convincing as the earnest Frederick. Other humorous portrayals include the young maidens who appear on the shore and are in exaggerated dismay when Fredrick appears; Greg LaNave also takes on the comic role of the seemingly unmilitary Modern Major General.   James Maxted is a spirited  Pirate King.

The generous helping of humor, of course, is complemented by the music of Gilbert and Sullivan. One of the show’s standards, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” is performed with verve by Dr. LaNave. Kate Kelly, a music teacher by day, plays Frederick’s love interest, Mabel, commanding an operatic voice which works especially well in the beautiful song “Poor Wandering One.” 

The props are very funny and relevant to youngsters today, such as the “Minecraft” themed swords pulled out when the pirates are about to raid the Modern Major General’s house. The stage space is also used effectively, bringing the show right before the audience. This musical style of the production is innovative; music director Darin Stringer imbues the spritely musical score with a distinctive mellow sound which complements the voices of the performers well.  

Grant Renard as Constable and Kate Kelley as Mabel in Chalice Theatre’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance.” (Photo: D. Ohlandt)

When asked about the group’s choice of “Pirates,” Nancy Nowalk, who also provides an excellent portrayal of the character Ruth, pointed out that Chalice usually produces classic Broadway fare such as “The Music Man” and “South Pacific” However, Chalice feels that our current times invite parody: “Most Gilbert and Sullivan operettas skewer the politics of the time. If anything, however, ‘Pirates of Penzance’s’ enduring status illustrates how timeless the themes of political satire are! Whether it is total deference to the rich and powerful or the commitment to putting a rigid construct of ‘duty’ above any sort of logical reality, ‘Pirates’ entertains because the absurdity it points out is timeless.”

An academic by day, Dr. LaNave, the Modern Major General, enjoys his change of pace with “Pirates.” He told Falls Church News-Press: “‘Pirates’ is probably the silliest show I’ve been in, and that includes ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’ and ‘Anything Goes.’  My current favorite line is in the second act finale, when Mabel sings “Frederick, save us!” and he responds “Beautiful Mabel, I would if I could but I am not able.”  I love the music of ‘Pirates,’ including all the nods towards grand opera (especially on the part of Mabel).” 

Most importantly, the audience responded very enthusiastically to the production. The mission of Chalice Theatre is “to offer intergenerational experiences in the performing arts,” and by this measure the performance was a clear success. The audience, ranging from a six-year-old girl to older adults, were all laughing enthusiastically. Indeed, the show offers a wonderful, warmhearted performance full of humor for the whole family. The broad range of performers in the cast was also a joy to see—everyone from parents to a music teacher, a college professor, and children and teens.

“The Pirates of Penzance” runs for six more performances, with evening performances at 7:30 p.m. on March 10, 11, 17, and 18 as well as matinee performances at 2 p.m. on March 11 and 12. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington is at 4444 Arlington Boulevard, Arlington, Virginia 22204.  For further information, please visit: Chalice Theatre – Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington (