Love ’em or hate ’em: The works of Gilbert and Sullivan remain touchstones of musical theater. In 2005’s Precious Nonsense, Rachel Lampert reimagines The Pirates of Penzance, placing the entire operetta in the hands of a small but ambitious troupe of traveling actors in the Depression era. Much as Shakespeare’s Hamlet spawned Tom Stoppard’s absurdist modern masterpiece Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—in which a band of actors also features prominently—Precious Nonsense pays homage to the original at the same time as it mines it for gags. In this kind of clever, self-referential play-within-a-play, there’s always a danger of leaving the audience out of the inside joke. By the time intermission hits, you may realize you’ve lost the plot, yet this production works on sheer hilarity alone.
Even those unfamiliar with Pirates can catch up quickly with the flimsy plotline: Young Frederick is indentured to serve a band of pirates until he turns 21. He is dismayed to discover that his February 29 birthday means he has only officially reached five and a half, and is doomed to serve for another 63 years. In Lampert’s rendition, Frederick (Max Avila) eagerly awaits his birthday when he’ll be free to leave his family’s theater company. In the meantime, he has a starring role in the latest production, and, due to a misunderstanding at the latest venue, everyone is hustling to produce a full operetta with only seven actors and one musical director (John Douglas, who plays piano marvelously throughout). The show goes on, though not without some serious gaffes.
Toss in a love pentangle and some cross-dressing, and the multi-layered jokes of the original only get more complicated. The syrupy-voiced Megan Davis plays Mack Mabelman: a woman disguised as a man dressed as a woman. She ultimately wins Frederick’s affections—but only when she wipes off her fake moustache. As the high-strung confirmed bachelor Pete Patterson, Jason Quisenberry delivers some of the night’s most delicious double entendres.
Lampert lifts many of the musical’s original scores and sets them to new lyrics, so Gilbert and Sullivan fans should appreciate renditions of manic patter songs like “Modern Major General.” For seasoned Circle Bar B attendees, this production has a special draw: It marks the first time in 17 years that husband-and-wife coproducers David and Susie Couch have played a married couple on stage. At more than two-and-a-half hours, Precious Nonsense is a send-up of epic proportions. Don’t forget that after-dinner coffee.