Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” is a fabulous pajama party that features (a) a mixed-use area where audience and cast happily share space; (b) a pillow pit at center stage for soft moshing — kids and adults plainly love it; and (c) a talented cast of musician-clowns playing guitars, ukuleles, banjo, fiddle and even toy piano while they happily slash through the satirical operetta.
The bar’s open, and snacks are available. Hard not to have a good time.
The production at the Olney Theatre Center comes from Chicago’s Hypocrites, which two years ago brought the similarly frisky “The Mikado” and a “Pirates of Penzance” that was as bouncy as the beach balls it unleashed in the crowd. “Pirates” is back, this time with “Pinafore,” and the unpretentious, play-with-us approach is a perfect summer escape.
It wouldn’t be such fun if the cast couldn’t really play both the puckish wit and the jaunty tunes of Gilbert and Sullivan. But they can — in pajamas, keep in mind, and always with an instrument in hand. During their loose pre-show performance I counted eight strummers strumming during the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” with an accordion player squeezing in. Liberties are definitely taken: the intro to one melancholy ballad was unmistakably the guitar intro to Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” (You see the pattern.)
Genders are reversed in the deliberately overwrought saga of cross-class marriage, which is entirely in keeping with the original spirit of the piece. The vendor Buttercup is played as a man, so “bearded” works it way into the lyrics of director Sean Graney’s adaptation, since Matt Kahler is indeed formidably whiskered. Ralph Rackstraw is now Ralphina (Dana Saleh Omar). The captain’s daughter Josephine is now son Joseph. Again, you get the idea.
Not that it matters a lot; the performance is not calculated to spark reflection. It’s out for frivolity, and more than that in its jubilant embrace of the audience from the moment you step into the Mulitz-Gudelsky lab, which at just over 100 seats is the perfect size for what the Hypocrites do. They jolly you out of whatever purple reality you walked in with and remind you to play.
A similar lesson gets a heavier hand in “Pippin” as staged by the emerging Monumental Theatre Company. Director Rebecca Wahls puts cellphones in the hands of her cast for this revival of the popular 1972 Stephen Schwartz show, but it’s not as if that turns “Pippin” into the social media equivalent of “Dear Evan Hansen.”
The cast flashes some skills, but the effort is distractingly evident — too much trying hard, not enough stepping soft, to use one of Schwartz’s lyrics. The show is far from gelled, lacking a governed look in the set or costumes, and the Bob Fosse jazz hands and gyrations can be overwhelming in the small space (the troupe operates in Alexandria’s Episcopal High School). The hidden six-piece musical ensemble is uneven, too; the enthusiastic Monumental, where I’ve seen the equally spotty “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Brooklyn,” may be on the right track, but it hasn’t clicked yet.
H.M.S. Pinafore by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Directed and adapted by Sean Graney. About 80 minutes. In repertory with “The Pirates of Penzance” through Aug. 19 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. $30-$74. 301-924-3400 or olneytheatre.org.
Pippin. Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Roger O. Hirson. Directed by Rebecca Wahls. About 2 hours 10 minutes. Through July 30 at the Ainslie Arts Center at Episcopal High School, 3900 Braddock Rd., Alexandria. $40. Visit monumentaltheatre.org.