Swordfights, Slapstick and Wordplay for All Ages: 'The Pirates of Penzance'

Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance might be the silliest play in a genre known for silliness – but that is only one of the reasons that you should take your whole family to see it at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle before the run ends on August 4.


There is a joke tucked into nearly every line, and the slapstick had my daughters, ages 9 and 4 (okay, me too), laughing out loud with everyone else in the audience. Despite being about pirates and maidens, it is a genuinely family-friendly production; a few physical jokes (like young Frederic’s extending spyglass the first time he sees a young lady) go right over the kids’ heads, but on the whole it is very clean. This could be related to the play’s premiere date in the height of the Victorian era – 1879.

Arguably the first example of musical theater, The Pirates of Penzance forms a musical bridge between the dramatic grand opera of the Victorian era and the modern musical comedy. While opera is rarely recommended for children under 8, the Fifth Avenue welcomes children as young as 4. The Pirates of Penzance captured my 4-year-old’s rapt attention while introducing her to many of the stylistic elements of opera.

For example, my girls were captivated by the sword fight between the pirate king and the orchestra conductor, so we took a closer look at the stage during the intermission. We discovered a window onto the orchestra pit at actor’s stage left, where the percussionist happily showed us the various instruments used for sound effects.

Like all the best family entertainment, Pirates delivers on multiple levels. Underneath a thick layer of slapstick, pointed wit skewers hypocrisy while delighting in word games: A whole scene plays with the similar pronunciation of the words “orphan” and “often,” while the premise of the story rests on the nurse mistaking “pilot” for “pirate.” Every single character is internally conflicted, usually between their inclinations and the unfair and often ridiculous requirements of society.


The multi-dimensional characters provide families with something a little more substantial to talk about afterwards, and contributes to Pirates' lasting appeal, despite the almost nonsensical story line. For example, the pirates are actually gentlemen who took up piracy because it seemed more honest than banking, while the policemen feel guilty for arresting criminals because the criminals are just regular folks when they're not committing crimes. (Among the slew of marriages in Act Two, the union of a pirate and a policeman was a sweet and timely touch.)

The major general is tormented by a lie he told to save his skin. The maidens feel they are supposed to chaperone the romantic leads, but actually want to leave them alone (and peek on them). Parents looking for messages can definitely find lots of gray areas for discussion.

Gilbert & Sullivan’s music is so influential that even little kids are likely to recognize some of the melodies (such as "Modern Major General"). From patter songs to arias, the music that set the standard for modern theater continues to delight, especially in the hands of the 5th Avenue’s cast (which includes quite a few local favorites).


Seattle audiences are generous with standing ovations, but even at a mid-run Saturday matinee, this one felt earned, and I stood to applaud as enthusiastically as my children did. For a play that is almost 135 years old, The Pirates of Penzance feels awfully fresh.

If you go ...

Where: The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Avenue, Seattle, WA 98101 between Union and University.

When: Through August 4; show times vary (matinees on weekends only, no performance on Mondays). Performances run 2 hours 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

Tickets: Tickets range from $50 to $110 and can be purchased online, by phone at 206-625-1900, or in person at the box office (this is the only option that does not include a fee).

Parking: Parking at one of three nearby garages can be purchased directly from the theater in advance for $6. Some restaurants offer free or discounted parking with your 5th Avenue ticket stub (see “Restaurants” on the Fifth Avenue FAQ page.) Consider taking the bus – look online to plan your route.

85About the author: Spoken, sung, or danced, Gemma Alexander and her two girls love a good story. Fortunately, Seattle’s arts scene is happy to oblige.

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