Music Theater Works’ ‘Pirates of Penzance’ a treasured stage adventure

By Philip Potempa

Ben Barker as Frederic and Nancy Hays as nursemaid Ruth star in “The Pirates of Penzance” at Music Theater Works in Evanston to launch the 2018 Season. (Photo by Brett Beiner)

My last audience encounter with William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan‘s more than a century-old stage favorite musical “The Pirates of Penzance” was in April 2012, when Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire invited the rollicking singing swashbucklers to their theater-in-the-round for a fun two-month run. Prior to that, it was the 2006 sensational staging at Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre. And way back in 1982, there was the new national tour of producer Joseph Papp‘s version playing at what was then Chicago’s Shubert Theater and starring Jim Belushi as The Pirate King, Peter Noone, lead singer of Herman’s Hermits, as young Frederic and as Mabel, singer Caroline Peyton, who hails from Bloomington, Ind., and was the lead singer for a rock band called The Screaming Gyspy Bandits.

More than 130 years later, the story of young Frederic — who as a child is mistakenly apprenticed to a band of tenderhearted, orphaned pirates — must choose his own path on his pivotal 21st birthday, as surprises, the promise of love and his destiny await.

Music Theater Works, formerly Light Opera Works, has struck pirate’s treasure at Cahn Auditorium in Evanston with a new, lush and lavish production of “The Pirates of Penzance” June 9 through 17 with a 26-piece orchestra conducted by Linda Madonia for this two-hour and 20 minute triumphant audience ovation.

Directed by Music Theater Works artistic director Rudy Hogenmiller and choreographed by Clayton Cross, all of the musical favorites like “Poor Wand’ring One,” “Oh, Better Far to Live and Die” and “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” are polished and delivered with precision.

Young, wide-eyed and filled with wonderment is lead Ben Barker as hero Frederic, ever earnest and dutiful. Barker has a genuine charm and excellent comedic timing, especially teamed in his scenes with the venerable Larry Adams as the Pirate King leading his gang of not-so-salty seadogs.  Stage favorite James Harms has every syllable and line delivered letter-perfect as the spry soft-shoeing Major-General Stanley. Cecilia Iole dazzles as Frederic’s beauty Mabel and Nancy Hays makes the most of her comic relief time as calculating and cantankerous nursemaid Ruth (a role so relished by the entertaining one-of-a-kind Alene Robertson in the aforementioned 2012 Marriott run.) Cary Lovett‘s Samuel, sidekick to the Pirate King, and willowy PJ Wilborn as the Sergeant of Police, round out the central characters who buzz about and capture attention.

A large and impressively in sync ensemble comprise the Major-General’s warbling daughters, including standouts Caitlyn Glennon and Anna Brockman, as well as capable talents like Leon

James Harms stars as the Modern Major-General in “The Pirates of Penzance” June 9-17 at Music Theater Works in Evanston, Ill. (Photo by Brett Beiner)

Evans and David Gordon-Johnson as more pirate crew, and a lot of others as a very unsure police force who fumble and bumble expertly and entertainingly on cue.

Ben Barker, Larry Adams and Nancy Hays star in “The Pirates of Penzance,” marking the fifth time the popular production has been staged by Music Theater Works Company. (Photo by Brett Beiner)

The design/production team is led by Joe Schermoly, who has dreamed up a rich and dreamy scenic design that transports the audience from boat to beach to flowering vine entangled manor ruins. Jana Anderson has designed an array of costumes with intricate details and custom touches to enchant when showcased with Andrew H. Meyers‘ lighting. Aaron Quick‘s sound design is on mark. Sean McStravick serves as stage manager and Katie Beeks is production manager.

This run of “The Pirates of Penzance” is sponsored by The Pauls Foundation, with additional support from the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation. This is the fifth return of “The Pirates of Penzance” by the Music Theater Works company, with previous bows in 1983, 1995, 2002 and 2009 and certainly, more stage voyages that await the charted courses of the future.

While some fans might cherish the 1983 feature film adaptation starring Kevin Kline, Rex Smith, Linda Ronstadt and Angela Lansbury (which I must admit I’ve not ever seen), encountering these pirates, maidens and eccentric characters as a live production is far greater that a king’s ransom.

Ticket prices for “The Pirates of Penzance” begin at $34. Ages 25 and younger are half price. FYI: (847) 920-5360 or

Philip Potempa is a veteran journalist and published author. He can be reached