The new show at the Muny, “Pirates! (or, Gilbert & Sullivan Plunder'd),” is too offbeat to categorize. But if you liked “Spamalot,” you should feel right at home. In “Pirates!,” “Spamalot” gets wet.
Both shows grew out of distinctly British comedy: Monty Python for “Spamalot,” Gilbert and Sullivan for “Pirates!” Both shows revel in physical hijinks, heightening their appeal for young men and boys (an audience musicals tend to ignore). And both shows have brains.
In creating “Spamalot,” Eric Idle figured that people would go to the theater with some notion of the stories of the Table Round, whether from the 15th-century works of Sir Thomas Malory or from the adventures of Prince Valiant in the comics.
The creators of “Pirates!” — Gordon Greenberg, Nell Benjamin and John McDaniel — figure that audiences come to the theater with some notion of English colonial history, whether from years of scholarship or from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.
After a spate of slight or self-referential musicals in recent years, it's refreshing to see a show that figures you, person in the audience, are interested in something beyond your own Facebook profile. That might be the smartest thing about “Pirates!,” actually. It assumes its audience is smart as well.
But it's also smart enough to figure that a satire of politics and mores in Victorian England may no longer provoke gales of laughter. So, although “Pirates!” is rooted in “The Pirates of Penzance” by Sir William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur S. Sullivan, it has been extensively reworked for modern tastes. We get all the humor because this is wit for our times.
The story is simple and silly. Around 1700, a Pirate King (Hunter Foster) with a tender-hearted crew and the many maiden daughters of a British Major General (Ed Dixon) find themselves on the same Caribbean island. Romance ensues, especially for daughter Mabel (Analisa Leaming) and the oh-so-gallant, duty-bound pirate Frederic (Jay Armstrong Johnson).
McDaniel — music supervisor, arranger and orchestrator — gives “Pirates!” a bright sound that showcases some notable Sullivan melodies (not all originally from “Penzance”). “Oh, False One” is especially fun, with melodrama played for laughs and a spoof, thanks to choreographer Denis Jones, of male “ballet” steps.
Director Greenberg evidently told his cast to have fun, and why not? Foster swashes his buckle with abandon, and Dixon delivers the “A Modern Major General” with such bluster, you could eat him up. There's another natural clown in Kathy Fitzgerald, who plays Ruth, the pirates' ... friend, let's call her.
Leaming and Johnson make hilariously well-behaved sweethearts, and Mabel herself is a fascinating character. An amateur scientist, she's Elle Woods for the Age of Reason, a smart girl who can't keep her mouth shut. Bear in mind, author Benjamin co-wrote the songs for “Legally Blonde: The Musical” with her husband, Laurence O'Keefe. Her fingerprints are all over Mabel's sweeping skirts.
The choruses — sisters who pride themselves on smiling “vacantly, vacantly,” pirates and Caribbean policemen — are to-pnotch, whether fluttering (the sisters), leaping (the pirates) or helplessly staggering around (the police, led by a wonderfully supercilious Alan Mingo Jr.).
The imaginative set, originally designed by Rob Bissinger and adapted for the Muny by Steve Gilliam, underlines the wit of the whole production. Two settees, for example, open up comic and choreographic possibilities rarely explored in Queen Anne décor. That's the secret of “Pirates!” in a nutshell: Old doesn't have to be fusty, if you look at it with fresh eyes.
'PIRATES! (OR, GILBERT & SULLIVAN PLUNDER'D)'
When 8:15 p.m. through Sunday • Where The Muny in Forest Park • How much $10-$70, plus the free seats • More info 314-534-1111; muny.org