The new Stratford production of The Pirates of Penzance, directed by David Ethan (whoops!) McSweeney, begins backstage. As the overture begins, we are looking at the rear of the asbestos curtain, as pirates and maidens mill about, stretching, humming bits of song, being shushed by and receiving their props from the besweatered stage manager. It’s a loving homage to Stratford’s classic productions from the 1980s, and made me grin from ear to ear. My anticipation grew as the pirates lined up facing away from us, preparing for the curtain to rise. Was this going to be backstage G&S, Pirates as refracted through some combination of Kiss Me Kate and Noises Off? What’s going to happen after the curtain rises?

Well, what happens is that we get a brief glimpse of footlights up stage, and then the pirates turn around and start their first number facing us. Which is all well and good – but that’s the last we see of backstage until the curtain for intermission, when the curtain comes down and the stage manager wanders on again. What looks like a marvelous conceit that could ramify throughout the show turns out to be a joke with no real punchline.

This failure to live up to the “promise of the premise” was a recurring problem in the production. I desperately wanted to like it, and it kept giving me reasons to hope, only to leave me, well, if not sobbing upon the rocks then increasingly disappointed at the opportunities missed, the quibbles quaint that could have blossomed into something far more extravagant.

I’ll illustrate with some additional examples. First, costumes. There’s a definite steampunk thread running through the picturesque uniforms affected by the pirates, one that I thought was quite promising. Oh good, I thought, these are going to be hipster pirates, and I awaited eagerly what novel games these contemporary dandies might play at. But nothing turned up: they did piratical dances, rope tricks, etc., but nothing that felt terribly specific.

Then, when the maidens appeared, my hopes rose again. The lead maiden of the troop (not Mabel – she shows up later), played by Naomi Costain, led her  sisters across genuinely rocky mountains, with ropes and pickaxe, attired in a sensible Victorian exploring outfit. Oh, wonderful, I thought. These doughty and sensible girls are going to whip the lost-boy pirates into shape. But . . . they didn’t. Maidens and pirates alike seemed terribly keen on achieving unbounded domesticity – so much so that it was a bit inexplicable why the girls protested to their father that the pirates wish to marry them against their wills. That, in and of itself, was a disappointment – haven’t we seen the “let’s all strip to our underwear” joke rather enough already? – but it was a bigger disappointment because of the promise implied by the costumes when we first met pirates and maidens, that we were going to get what you might call an Apotovian take on that prospect of domestic felicity.

When Mabel sang her first notes, my hopes were raised again. While Amy Wallis didn’t quite have the vocal stamina for the part, she looked like a youthful Tracey Ullman – and she had a bit of Ullmanesque self-satisfaction in her duet with Frederick. Yes, I thought; Mabel shouldn’t just be this Victorian alabaster statue. “The question is, had he not been a thing of beauty,” her sisters ask, “would she be swayed by quite as keen a sense of duty?” Frederick anxiously asks, repeatedly, if she will be faithful to her sooth not only until she is wed, but “even after.” Sounds like she’s got a pretty powerful sex drive – and Ullman would know that. But – no again. After that first song, Wallis’s smile turned to plaster, and I felt nothing from her in her most critical duet, “Ah, leave me not to pine.”

The biggest disappointment, because I know what a fine actor he is, was Sean Arbuckle as the Pirate King. I’m not sure what went wrong; I fear that he simply isn’t a king (he does tend to get cast as straight men and second bananas), but it’s also possible that the process for this show just wasn’t so much about creating a character as about learning the business. There is a great deal of business, involving swinging on ropes and dropping cannon balls and buckling with swash and Arbuckle – and the cast generally – handle it ably, but the Pirate King has to convince us that at least he thinks he’s somebody pretty important. And I just never got that from Arbuckle. Hopefully as the show develops, he’ll let the fantasy run wilder with him. It is a glorious thing, after all, to be the Pirate King – it is, it is!

I say Arbuckle was the biggest disappointment, but that’s because I believe he’s got more in him than I saw. The only performance that was outright bad in the whole production was C. David Johnson as Major General Stanley. He couldn’t do the patter song. He lost his lines partway through one verse, and both before and after that he couldn’t keep proper tempo. It was downright bizarre.

This was certainly the exception – in general, the cast was able, and I’d call out Steve Ross’s fussy Scottish Police Sergeant (he also doubled as the stage manager) and Gabrielle Jones’s salty Irish Ruth (she also doubled as Queen Victoria) for particular praise from among the ensemble. But the overwhelmingly dominant presence onstage was Kyle Blair as Frederick. He sang rings around everyone (particularly his Mabel), his comic timing was perfect, but more than everything he conveyed a distinctive character in Frederick, a frustrated young man of spirit who, when he says he is a slave of duty, you believe that he doesn’t just mean he’s devoted to it, but that it frustrates him, infuriates him even, knowing as he does that, with his talent and ambition, he’d be a better king than any of them if only seizing the crown outright were proper. The funniest moment in the whole show was when Blair, in the midst of his duet with Ruth “O false one, you have deceived me,” boards a rowboat with a hand-cranked paddle wheel, and begins to row away as they sing the slow bit towards the end (“Your love would be uncomfortably fervid it is clear” – this is the only production I’ve seen where I could clearly hear Frederick’s lines as well as Ruth’s). And then, on “forty-seven year!” begins rowing furiously away from Ruth as he returns to “faithless woman to deceive me, I who trusted so!” I was in stitches.

McSweeney himself has said that his aim with Pirates wasn’t to have a “take” on it at all but to let the play be itself. He didn’t exactly do that – he added additional music for dance numbers, for example – but I think I know what he means, that he didn’t want to do a “knowing” Pirates, and I’m fine with that, even though I thought from the opening that I was, in fact, going to get a “take” on Pirates – and was excited by the prospect. But what ultimately brings the show home isn’t traditionalism or postmodernism, but characterization. And I fear that all the hard work on the plenitude of business in the show took important time away from that basic work of an actor.

In any event, I’ll be interested to see the show again in August, and see whether it redeems the time by growing into itself.