Singing pirates are nothing new — “Yo, ho, ho! And a bottle of rum” — but Maine State Music Theatre offers a fresh take on sword-swinging, swashbuckling serenaders with its East Coast premiere of “Treasure Island: a Musical Adventure.”
Co-writers Curt Dale Clark, the Brunswick-based theater company’s artistic director, and Marc Robin, executive artistic director for Fulton Theatre in Pennsylvania, tapped their vast knowledge of what makes musical theater successful to create an epic adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, “Treasure Island.” The basic story remains intact; Jim Hawkins, a young teen who has just lost his father, returns home from the funeral to find boarder Billy babbling on about buried booty and the map to find it, a blind man and a cursed black spot: all the makings of a sailor’s yarn.
Only when Billy dies, leaving Jim the map, does the story make sense. Jim’s guardian, a man named Dr. Livesy, and his friend Squire Trelawney hire a ship, helmed by the good Captain Smollett and a motley crew. They set to sea in search of sparkling gold.
But all is not right aboard the bark; the captain rightly suspects the crew of murderous and mutinous intent, led by a squirrelly cook who goes by the pirate-y name Long John Silver. Will Jim survive to find the promised plunder?
It is always a struggle to translate page to live action. Clark and Robin should be commended for their ambition. At its heart, “Treasure Island” is about a young man looking for a father figure as he comes of age amid turmoil on the high seas. The characters could easily be divided into simply good and bad but, as with Stevenson’s original, Clark and Robin bring complexity and nuance to the story, focusing on what it means to be loyal to crew, family, and one’s own self. Credit to some of the success of this show must go to the two leads: Michael William Nigro as Jim Hawkins and Aaron Ramey as Long John Silver, the black-hearted pirate who has a soft spot for young Jim. Their voices blend better than buttered rum as they sing about dreams, confessions and consequences throughout the show.
In a touching domestic scene below deck, Jim and Long John peel apples as they pare away at their stoicism to reveal hopes and longings for a better life, in which one can live by one’s own rules and be free of expectations. In less talented hands, a scene of two people preparing a meal in a musical about mutiny would knock the wind out of most sails. Instead, it serves as the introspective calm before the swashbuckling storm of swords in the scene that follows.
The musical score filled with wind instruments orchestrated by David Siegel, is, at times, breathtakingly soaring and swelling as waves on the high seas and other times rather Disney-esque, especially when the comedic character of deserted islander Ben Gunn, played by James Michael Reilly, is introduced.
For a musical featuring pirates, there is little to no dancing, not even a reel or jig. It seems like a missed opportunity not to use the galley for a drunken caelidh during the “Bottle of Rum” song, when the pirate crew is imbibing liquid courage to plan the captain’s murder.
Speaking of which, even though “Treasure Island” was written and serialized for a young readers’ magazine in the late 19th century, this all-male production might not be suited for young children because people are killed onstage and the sword-swing metaphors don’t all refer to sharp objects.
The fight scenes are well-choreographed, with men swinging from ropes, Jim jumping along the gunwales, and the hilarious popinjay Squire Trelawney, acted by Michael Iannucci, hysterically trying to avoid breaking a heel while dodging bullets, punches and cudgels.
Wherever possible, Clark and Robin injected humor — right down to the costuming — into the show and display serious fun when Long John Silver hands out insults disguised as compliments. “You’re as smart as paint” he opines to a fellow matey, which went over his head but not the audience’s.
Much like sailing the high seas in days long gone, Maine State Music Theatre has taken a risk in bringing “Treasure Island” to the stage, knowing that summer theater subscribers prefer the well-loved classic musicals. But the interplay between the lead actors overcomes the absence of recognizable songs. So take a chance and see it now, especially because many would bet pieces of eight on the good odds that Michael William Nigro, whom musical theater fans will recognize from the live television production of “The Sound of Music,” will be shining a treasured Tony Award in the near future.
“Treasure Island: a Musical Adventure” runs through July 13. Tickets are still on sale at msmt.org.