In the annals of musical theater, or theater of any sort, the works of (W. S.) Gilbert and (Arthur) Sullivan stand, sometimes on purpose, not entirely on strong footing. As comic operas and operettas particular to Victorian times, they are an anomaly in the 21st century. Yet they are entirely deathless, original and universal, here, there and everywhere.
Even the Wikipedia entry on Gilbert and Sullivan gets somewhat fanciful, describing a world in which “fairies rub elbows with British lords, flirting is a capital offence, gondoliers ascend to the monarchy and pirates emerge as noblemen who have gone astray.” That was the result of hitching a facile librettist, Gilbert, to the absurdly difficult, trippy music of Sullivan. Together, they built a career upon such works as “The Pirates of Penzance,” “Iolanthe,” “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “Ruddigore,” “The Gondoliers” and “The Mikado.”
To this day, there are companies all over the world who do nothing but G&S, the Victorian Lyric Opera in Rockville and the Washington Savoyards among them. Broadway was lured into the fray with a Joseph Papp production of “The Pirates of Penzance” in 1981 that attracted such stars as Kevin Kline, rock-pop princess Linda Ronstadt, Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits and Jim Belushi (brother of SNL legend John). A hit on the Great White Way, it went on to tour nationally.
Whether you know the tropes and traps of Gilbert and Sullivan by heart or not at all, you should consider making the 30-mile trek out to Olney Theatre Center in Maryland, where the wonderfully named Chicago theater company the Hypocrites are performing “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Mikado” through Aug. 21 in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab.
Beware. This is not your granddads’ G&S, or even your dad’s. But it might just be your highly caffeinated cup of tea. What’s more, you can sit and watch in a “promenade,” mix with the cast and have a drink during the play. Oh, and the actors who play the parts also play the musical instruments, so don’t be surprised to find yourself up close and personal with an accordion.
“No, it’s not your typical Gilbert and Sullivan,” said Sean Graney, the gifted artistic director and founder of the Hypocrites, which began life in 1997. “But we stay true to the music, the lyrics, the spirit. It’s immersive, I would say. I think it gives the audience a chance to be a part of things. It’s more intimate. It’s very different, sure.”
The Hypocrites and Graney are a popular and much honored theater company in Chicago, operating out of a small theater with big ambitions. “We’re known for bringing fresh takes on classical theater works, but we hadn’t done too much work in musical theater. Our first forays into the form weren’t entirely successful. It’s a difficult thing to work on a company like ours — there’s copyright issues, and the sheer scope of things, public domain. We did do ‘Threepenny Opera,’ but somehow it didn’t quite work.
“But with these Gilbert and Sullivan works, it all comes together. We’ve toured with this in different parts of the country and audiences have really responded. For one thing, most straight productions of G&S run well over two hours. Ours go 80 minutes. The language is a little different and, for sure, the sets and settings are. It’s a little subversive. But it’s also all very inviting for the audience — to be this close and be in the middle of it all. It’s an untraditional way of presenting that’s very much a part of theater traditions. It becomes an experience, an event.”
The Hypocrites Theater productions seem to directly address the issue that’s being discussed among many leaders and artistic directors of live performance venues: how to attract today’s younger audiences, who take in entertainment and culture through computers, smartphones and other gadgets with screens.
“I think in that sense younger audiences have been a little underserved in the theater. There have been all these rules — lights out, don’t say anything, be quiet and well behaved, shut your gadgets off and so on. I think today’s younger audiences want to be a little more a part of things. They like to get in a room and hang out. This way, it becomes a shared experience. I presume people will turn off their phones, in any case, because there’s too much else going on. We encourage people to bring their children, although not their pets.”
That’s also the kind of theater experience that can’t be replicated on the computer. It’s communal, shared and experienced, with or without drinks.
The Hypocrites received a 2013 Tony Award for best regional theater. Recently, Graney’s “All Our Tragic,” a 12-hour extravaganza comprising all 32 surviving Greek tragedies¸ got six 2015 Equity Jeff Awards, which celebrate excellence in Chicago theater.
“This is the most delicious fun I’m going to have this summer,” said Olney Theatre Center Artistic Director Jason Loewith. “Everyone knows Chicago is home to some of the world’s most inventive companies, and the Hypocrites are one of my favorites.”