PIRATES! OF PENZANCE? is the very model of a modern dinner theater

MIDVALE — Interactive theater is a risky genre—audiences tend to either love it or hate it, with few on the fence. Some people understandably want to go to a show to be entertained and watch the performers from a safe and anonymous distance—actors onstage, audience in the comfortable darkness of their theater seats.

Show ends June 16, 2012.

This is the problem—and the appeal—of interactive theater companies like Salty Dinner Theater. Instead of simply being an uninvolved, hidden bystander, you are part of the experience, as actors sit next to you, talk to you, sing to you, even get you to do ridiculous things like dress up like a saltshaker and dance. Overall it’s fun, but it is also out of many people’s comfort zones, which is why it can be so polarizing.

Salty Dinner Theater’s production of Pirates! of Penzance? does a lovely job of trying to merge this “comfort zone” gap. While there is actor mingling and audience involvement in the show, there are also plenty of opportunities to sit back and simply be entertained old-school style—with a twist, of course. During intermission and in other scene breaks, this production employed its own two-women “clown” troop played by Mary Zullo Brassard (who coincidentally is also the founder and owner of Salty Dinner Theater) and Jamie Taylor (what a voice!). Their sole purpose is to break the ice and put even the most standoffish audience members at ease. They sing, they crack jokes, and even garner volunteers (mostly—sorry to my husband who was, ahem, “coerced” by yours truly) for audience contests, involving being your best pirate and then dancing it up as a condiment. So instead of a constant barrage of the main actors themselves mingling until it’s just awkward (been there—on both sides of the “stage”), between the scripted musical numbers and scenes, the audience is rewarded with a comedy and music sketch that is surefire hilarity.

Salty Dinner Theater also did a great job of presenting Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance as their own Salty version called Pirates! of Penzance? (Notice the punctuation changes.) While maintaining the basic storyline, plot, and characterizations of the original—and including lines and snippets of Gilbert and Sullivan’s original text and songs—the level of energy and tenacity each actor brought to the script earned the title’s extra punctuation and made the piece original while also familiar at the same time. So, kudos to director Anthony Porter for guiding the actors in such creative and fun ways.

My favorite actor was Chris “Madman” Madriaga as the Pirate King. He seemed to explode with energy every time he was performing. He was hilarious, committed to his sometimes ridiculous character to a level that made him believable, and he physically was a presence to be reckoned with, as he worked that space amazingly and had zero hesitation about expressing himself with big, full-body acting.

I could write a whole column on Ruth’s nose—wow, what a great and disgustingly hairy faker—but the actress behind the nose, Alisha Hall, was anything but stuffed up. She was funny, fresh, and totally took surprised me in her transformation which has to be seen to be believed. Sheri Gillie’s Mabel brought a fun feistiness to the usually sugar-sweet role, and I at least now have a special place in my heart for puppets dressed up like pirates and policeman thanks to actor Chris Kucera. Finally, the pinnacle song, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” was in fact included and Major-General (Jeremy Jonsson) delivered the song as it was intended—fast, funny, and amazingly enough, with clear diction. Moreover, the song was delightfully modernized while still staying true to the intent of the original version. (I had no idea until this show that that song even mentioned Twitter—who knew?)

I am the type of person that likes interactive theater—so I admit a bias towards shows like this. But I can’t say I always feel completely comfortable when actors push themselves in my face and try to force me to “play along.” I didn’t get that at all during Salty Dinner Theater’s production. If anything, the longer the show went on, the more I wanted to participate, join in, and just laugh. Thanks goes out to all the cast and crew of Pirates! of Penzance? who probably added a good ten days onto my life from all that merrymaking. Huzzah!

The Salty Dinner Theater production Pirates! of Penzance? plays at three restaurant locations in Salt Lake and Utah Counties on June 7-9, and 15-16 at 7:30 PM. All tickets are sold out. For more information about Salty Dinner Theater, visit www.saltydinnertheater.com.