By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Reviewer
I have just seen/heard an absolutely first-rate production of “The Pirates of Penzance or The Rascals of the Rappahannock” at the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts in Fredericksburg, Va. Honestly, I’ve attended many, many productions of this piece with all kinds of adaptations, and this is—hands down—the best. Boom. Period.
Why, you may ask? The casting/singing is as good as it gets! Patrick A’Hearn, the Producing Artistic Director, is a singer and actor (he was in the original cast of “Les Miz” on Broadway, on the national tour and lots more shows) who KNOWS the voices that are needed for a show like this and he seeks them out and hires them! I know because I ASKED him!
A bit about the background and story of this beloved 150-year-old Gilbert and Sullivan piece. To give it a local twist, the setting is along the banks of the Rappahannock River instead of the rocky coast of Cornwall. And we are in Virginia, not England, in the late eighteenth century when King George III ruled the colony. The famous soft-hearted Rascals of the Rappahannock (lately of Penzance) are endeavoring to plunder with aplomb along the banks of this famous river. At the same time, the blundering Red Coats of the British army are desperately trying to keep tabs on them as well as the befuddled Major General George Boshington, who resides at Chatham Manor (now a local Fredericksburg attraction) with his many delightful daughters.
Just so you know: there were actual pirates on the Potomac and the Rappahannock during the late 18th century and they pillaged and plundered right up to the beginning of the War of 1812. They called themselves the Picaroons and were unrepentant loyalists to King George III (the swine!).
In the huge cast of 20 uniformly outstanding singers and actors, I’d like to point out a few of note: the coloratura soprano of Mabel Boshington (Claire Leyden) is meltingly perfect (Poor Wandering One) and she is gorgeous, as well. I also must mention the Pirate King, played by David Jennings (who was also our server) was so sexy and sang so beautifully, I could hardly believe it!
The Modern Major General Boshington’s diction (as played by Andrew Ross Wynn) is simply astonishing and just when you think he can’t possibly keep up the pace of his famous patter song (I am the very Model of a Modern Major General), he’s doubled the pace! And he’s hilarious to boot. An aside: I saw Andrew in Catherine Flye’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance or the Picayunes of the Potomac” at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC about 20 years ago and he’s even better now! And speaking of Catherine Flye, she is the director and adaptor of this amazing production and is a DC-area treasure, who has been acting, singing, and directing here for many years and has been nominated numerous times for Helen Hayes Awards.
The delightful, evocative sets by April Joy Vester and the brightly colored and beautifully tailored costumes by Tom Hammond, are summery and pastel pretty for the daughters of the Major General and for Ruth, who is a part of the band of pirates, and appropriate to the time and status for the men, whether pirates, militia or Modern Major Generals. And there is a live 7-piece orchestra led by the incredibly talented Joe Walsh, music director, who for many years was the Virginia Opera chorus master and was often the conductor of the Richmond Symphony for Virginia Opera!! And here’s more good news: Patrick A’Hearn says every show has a live orchestra! This is NOT your mother’s dinner theatre!
But wait, there’s Sherry Edelen, who has won several Helen Hayes awards, transforming into a Ruth character like none other I’ve ever seen—hilarious, but human as well. She is such a fabulous triple threat—but for me, her singing is simply wonderful for this role. And Samual Keeler as Frederic has a voice that’s perfect for his role and he looks, well, adorable. I can’t leave the creative part of this discussion without telling you how marvelous the sound created by Billy Timms is in this quite large theatre. It’s never brash or harsh, but always full and rich, a must for this style of musical.
Dinner in this dinner theatre is served at handsome tables with several enticing selections for each course and it’s all quite delicious. Plus, it’s served by many of the members of the cast. They have a great time, are extremely helpful, and give you a little taste of things to come onstage!
It’s an easy drive down I-95 and back—less than an hour each way from Shirlington, Virginia for the matinee on Sunday, even with traffic delays both ways. A little tip—take I-95 S from the DC area or Northern Virginia to the US Highway 17 West exit, then get into the far-left lane to take an immediate left. Take the second left into the Riverside Business Park and you’ll see the theatre and the ample parking available. The price for seniors for the served dinner and show is approximately $67+ drinks from the bar + tip. What a bargain! Go!!
Performance and Ticket Information: “Pirates” runs now through July 7. Running time for this show: 2 hours 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Riverside Center for the Performing Arts is located at 95 Riverside Parkway, Fredericksburg, VA 22406. Tickets may be purchased at 504-370-4300 or online at www.riversidedt.com or [email protected]