Olney Theatre: Pirates of Penzance

When my children and I first walked into the Olney Theatre to see the Pirates of Penzance I wasn’t sure we were in the right place.  Although we arrived just a few minutes before the show was scheduled to begin, no one was lined up ready to file into the theatre and no one was sitting quietly in their seats.  Instead, there were beach balls flying everywhere and roving musicians playing guitars singing and interacting with the crowd.  Everyone was having a great time and I even spotted some parents having an adult beverage.

After confirming with an usher that we were indeed in the right place and hadn’t inadvertently crashed a party, I was told that we could make my way in to find our seats. Or grab a seat on the stage or floor if that sounded better. I was also told that I might not even notice when the play actually started.

To get started, my kids choose an empty kiddie pool to settle into to volley some balls back and forth, although at various times we found ourselves sitting on the stage, on some stage props, and on the floor.
Eventually we were aware that the play had started and the actors gave us a few ground rules for the play, most of which involved the actors letting us know that they would point to us if they needed us to move out of their way and letting us know not to throw beach balls during the performance.

Given these unusual circumstances for a play, it’s hardly surprising that the Olney Theatre’s version of the Priates of Penzance is not the classic telling of the Gilbert & Sullivan story.  For those not familiar with the story, in short, as young boy Frederic was mistakenly sent to apprentice for a band of sappy pirates. Now, at the age of 21, he falls head-over-heels for the Modern Major General’s daughter and renounces the buccaneer life, or so he thinks.  This show has something for everyone from pirates to the search for true love.  The production manages to be retro, classic, and modern at the same time.

Pirates of Penzance is a great play, but more than that it is an experience. This is a great play for kids who love the theatre already and kids who don’t.  It’s also a great experience for adults who like to see their kids have fun and who just like to have fun themselves.  The Pirates of Penzance is performed by the Chicago-based Hypocrites so it may be a while before you have the chance to anything quite like the Pirates of Penzance again.  Don’t miss your change while you have it!


  • There is plenty of free parking.
  • The party starts about 30 minutes before showtime.  Get there early for the full experience.
  • The bar/snack cart is open before the show and throughout the show.  There are adult and kid beverages and candy available.
  • The show runs about 75 minutes with a one minute intermission (yes, one minute).
  • The show is meant to be experienced in what Olney Theatre calls the promenade, which is basically anywhere in the theatre including on the stage.  However, the theatre does have seats and you are welcome to sit in them for some or all of the show.  At the performance I attended, several parents were in seats while their children sat elsewhere, but I chose to sit with my kids in various places in the theatre and was glad that I did.   This is definitely not a show that kids have to be able to sit still to enjoy.
  • Tickets start at $30.
  • The Pirates of Penzance is showing in repertoire with the H.M.S. Pintafore, another Gilbert & Sullivan classic.