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Children's theatre had to regroup for season finale

It's been several decades since Mark Funk dressed up and played pirate.

But there he is, in the boots, with the hat and the sword and the scruffy beard, punctuating his sentences with a hearty "Arrrrrgh!"

"It's a charming piece and a lot of fun," Funk says of Lexington Children's Theatre's production of How I Became a Pirate, a musical by writer Alyn Cardarelli and composer Steve Goers.

Every once in a while, he and the rest of the cast remember it was supposed to be someone else's good time.

Funk is serving as the show's music director as well as playing Jacque LaToe, the pirate with a French accent.

It was a job originally held by Christopher Tolliver, who was the theater's go-to music director until he was killed March 5 in the parking lot of The Mall at Lexington Green. (Toby Ray Lasure has pleaded not guilty to a charge of murder in the death of Tolliver, whom he had dated.)

At the time of his death, Tolliver had been working on an ambitious plan for Pirate, one that would have put instruments in the hands of the actors, like John Doyle's productions of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Company.

"Chris was orchestrating it for the instrumentation we had — mandolin, violin, guitar," says Larry Snipes, LCT producing director and director of the show. "It was going to be like we had a pirate band on stage."

It was a plan that tapped Tolliver's talents as a composer and orchestrator, skills that were letting the Children's Theatre do things it had wanted to do for years, Snipes said. For the past three years, Tolliver had been music director of all of LCT's musicals.

Funk — a musical director for numerous Lexington shows, including last summer's production of Hair for SummerFest — worked with Tolliver last year on LCT's Hannah's Suitcase.

"I was an actor in that show," Funk says. "He was fascinating to work with. His capacity for finding the right sound was excellent."

Funk saw Pirate as a nice counter balance for Tolliver to Hannah's Holocaust drama.

Rehearsals had not started when Tolliver died.

With his death went the game plan for How I Became a Pirate.

Snipes says the first roadblock was Tolliver's laptop, on which he had been working on orchestrations. It was weeks before they could get to them, and rehearsals had to start.

And even with the music in hand, Snipes and Funk say it is very difficult for one director to translate another's vision. Ultimately, the plan for instrument-playing actors was scrapped. Funk and Snipes say they were fortunate that Cardarelli and Goers had recorded a soundtrack for the show.

"It's really quite good," Funk says of the recording. "It really conveys the spirit of the piece."

How I Became a Pirate is the story of a band of old-time pirates — far from Somali pirates in recent headlines — in a modern world of T-shirt shops and soccer games. They come upon a boy on the beach, and he willingly goes for a ride on their ship, hoping to learn the swashbucklers' ways.

The boy and the pirates end up learning from one another, particularly about the value of home and friendship. They also exchange a lot of "Arrrrrghs!" and "Avast, ye mateys."

"One of the great things about the show is I can't get the tunes out of my head, particularly the 'how to talk like a pirate' song," Snipes says. "We chose it for the tongue-in-cheekiness of it."

With such a sense of fun, the directors say they had to get past grief to put on the show.

"It was tough, early on, before we got into the rehearsal process," says Snipes, who adds that he didn't even want to talk about the show for a week after Tolliver's death.

When the theater called Funk, he says, he was told they wanted "family" to come in and see it through.

"We wanted someone we knew, who we knew would be sensitive to the situation, but also could get the job done," Snipes says.

On stage, there's no sense of mourning, except for a little boy who eventually decides he wants to go home and some crusty pirates who have moments of missing mommy.

That's the tone they wanted to strike.

Still, Tolliver isn't too far from their thoughts.

"There are moments I'll hear something and think, 'Chris would have really liked this,'" Funk says.

Snipes says, "Our whole idea is this is a fun show, and Chris would have had a fun time doing it."

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