The OBT - Pirates of the Caribiner

Playing thru May 29, 2011

SALT LAKE CITY — I reviewed the Off Broadway Theater’s (OBT) current musical, Pirates of the Carabiner, written and directed by Eric. R. Jensen, on Saturday. I was looking forward to it because:

  • I grew up in Southern California, so I went to Disneyland two to three times a year. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride was one of my favorites.
  • I am devoted to all things Johnny Depp, so I also became a huge fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, though the second and third ones’ plots left me a little confused.
  • I saw the OBT’s last musical The Phantom of the OBT and couldn’t wait to see what the OBT group would do this time.

As usual, the staff and the theater are delightful. And there’s popcorn and drinks that they actually let you snack on as you watch the show. As a movie goer, I love that the OBT combines live theater with one of the yummier aspects of movie watching. This time, my reviewing crew was me plus two more adults and two teenagers. I had raved to them all about how much fun the show would be.

In Pirates of the Carabiner, Timber, a lively eye-patched pirate, introduces the show and gets the audience ready to go. I was delighted with this, as were my companions. The company did a similar introduction at the beginning of the Phantom of the OBT, in which the audience is presented the same gimmick of “good guy” music and “bad guy” music and the audience is instructed to yea and boo accordingly . Also as in Phantom, a person sitting in the front row is instructed to say something after the yea-ing (“Eh, I’ve seen better”) and booing (“I like him”). This is a funny gag, if done right, but after about two times it doesn’t work because the people chosen aren’t actors and they don’t know to wait for the laughs. And this gag really isn’t necessary. When people are laughing already, and we do so often in this show, we don’t need a sometimes ill-timed audience-produced exclamation to cut off the original joke. It shuts down the laughing, doesn’t enhance it.

The first character we see in the show is Abraham Lincoln as seen in Disneyland’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, an “attraction” that I’ve seen several times because some of my trips to the Magic Kingdom were with school and we had to go see Great Moments for its educational value. Mr. Lincoln was created in 1964 and even as a youngster I was unimpressed with how unrealistic and robotic it was. However, the OBT’s Lincoln is hilarious! When it’s a real person acting like a boring, automated President, the audience literally laughed and laughed. Lincoln, played by the talented Dru Watts, narrates what will happen with the pirates, and introduces Jack Swallow, who is brave, but a little femmy ala Johnny Depp. And at one point, John Wilkes Booth comes out and he and Lincoln tussle, which I enjoyed. Fight back, Mr. Lincoln!

Throughout the show, there are many hilarious (and surprisingly authentic) re-enactments of Disney rides, mostly from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” although “It’s a Small World” and the “Matterhorn” are represented (at the same time!) for huge laughs. Within a short period of time at the beginning of the show were treated to a wonderful montage of all the silly pirates from the ride (i.e., pirates chasing each other and chasing women in a circle, pirates shooting the cannon, a man being dunked in a well, etc.)  Those of us who’ve been to Disneyland totally got why all the ride simulations were hilarious. But would that have been amusing to someone who’s never visited the Happiest Place on Earth?

I will mention without explanation, the spitter should turn his back away from the audience, not toward it, as he moves. Suffice it to say, there was some unfortunate and unscripted exposure.

Pirates of the Carabiner combines elements from all three of the Disney Pirates movies. And like the movies, I was at times unsure of what the plot was in this show. Through all the hilarity and the gags (which come once every few minutes), I got a little lost and wasn’t sure what was going on. One of the show’s biggest weaknesses was its uneven pace—the highs were great, the lows were boring and felt never-ending. Many of the comedic bits were played once to laughs, and then repeated sometimes three or four times, long after the fun had died. There was a “Did I/Dead Eye” bit that seemed to go on forever. Almost every aspect of the Vaudeville-type comedy was overplayed. Typical to Jensen’s writing, there are numerous lines devoted to poking fun (in a nice way) at our particular population, and there’s always a crack about BYU. He also mentions in his jokes: Cap’n Crunch, a smoker’s patch, Parley P. Pratt being mistaken for ‘parlay’ that again, went on too long.

Some of the physical gags were hilarious, though. Because boats play a prominent part in this play, several couples repeated the famous scene from Titanic in which Rose stretches out her arms as if she were flying from the front of a boat. I particularly enjoyed how funny—but not overplayed this gag was.  I also laughed at the jokes made at the expense of Dead Eye Danny, played handily by Patrick Harris had one, well, dead eye and the jokes made about that. (However, Harris also played Capt. Feathersword, a completely unnecessary character whose death scene was excruciatingly long.) Another gag based on the movie The Black Swan got the crowd howling.

The performances that stood out were Voodoo Mama, played by Angelica Hope Hartman, who was far more understandable than the woman in the movie. Hartman moved well and seemed most in character. Also, Mad Mary Roberts played by Tanya Felkner, was suitably nuts (a line that runs throughout the play); Kimberly Lochner’s Isabelle Goose was lovely and she played her part with the innocence and sweetness that was needed, though she wasn’t loud enough in some parts and her British accent was hit and miss. Will Turnbuckle, played by Jake Miskimins, was a standout performer—beautiful voice, projected well, good accent, handsome, and played Will with a physical magnetism and power. Ryan Tex Parker as Barnacle was awesome—great physical comedy, spot on accent. Everyone in my group loved him.

Patrick Alderman’s Capt. Barbacoa (Barbacoa being the name of the restaurant next door to the OBT), had great physical comedy, but unfortunately I couldn’t understand anything he said (a problem I also had with Captain Jack Swallow, played by Johnny Call). My son, with his teenage ears, said he heard Alderman perfectly well, but since most of the audience wasn’t teenagers, I’d recommend that Barbacoa speak much slower. Dru Watts was perfect as Mr. Lincoln, but as the evil Davey Jones, (wearing an outrageously cool squid mask) was also hard to hear and understand.

The stage decoration was pretty impressive: several boats, the big wheel that Swallow and Barbacoa run in (another gag that went way too long), and other pirate-ish stuff made the stage look successfully oceanic. The costumes were all gorgeous and made this show look at once pretty and cool. Let’s face it—pirate costumes rock.

The music in the show was something of a disappointment. The two numbers I liked were “Steal the Best” to the tune of Beauty and the Beast’s “Be Our Guest,” and “Shiver Me Timbers” from Muppet Treasure Island (one of my favorite movies), that was accompanied by singing Muppets. This was appealing for those of us who’d seen Muppet Treasure Island. But some of the other songs (like the ones sung to the tunes of “Get By With a Little Help from my Friends,” “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors, and “I’m a Believer”) fell flat. There seemed to be no real cohesion, and I was let down because I know Jensen is a gifted lyricist. His Phantom of the OBT score was brilliant. I had hoped, unfortunately in vain, for the same talent and wit in this show.

The choreography, from Amy Asay (who also served as assistant director, musical director, and choreographer) was at times pretty good and others, rather dreadful. The show’s writer and producer, Eric R. Jensen, also choreographed the dance numbers. The dances that didn’t work out too well were ones patterned after modern Lady Gaga-type numbers. I’m not sure if the cast just didn’t have the dancing experience to do these dances well, if they were hindered by their pirate apparel, or whether the dances themselves just were so out of place that they didn’t work.

The first act had sound issues; the music was louder than the actors (which may have been one of the reasons why I couldn’t understand what some of characters were saying.) However, these sound issues were rectified in Act Two. But several actors also missed or botched up their lines—something not seen often in this caliber of theater performances.

Finally, Elise Hanson as Bonney Gibbs and Heather Nightlinger as Red Rose Rackham are, unfortunately, the two characters that I and my companions had the most issue with, but it wasn’t their performances that we took exception to. It was the parts they played. The OBT claims that their productions are family-oriented. There are huge nods to the younger audience members with SpongeBob, Squidward, and Blue’s Clues in the show. But there are numerous scatological terms (poop deck being one of them), many sexual innuendo comments (one about bust lines particularly made me cringe), and a whole gay subplot. The adults in my party as well as my teenagers all felt uncomfortable with this. If this is family-friendly, what is risqué?

My son asked me if I had the chance if I’d go see this show again. The answer is no. Then he asked if I’d go see Phantom of the OBT again, and my answer was an unquestionable yes. Jensen has the talent to create funny plot lines with familiar subjects and stories we know, but this show, despite its large laughs, was too often slow, somewhat offensive, and disappointing.

Pirates of the Carabiner plays at the Off Broadway Theatre (272 S. Main Street, Salt Lake City) Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays at 7:30 PM through May 28th. Tickets are $8-16. For more information, visit