Kyle Blair as Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance. (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
The Pirates of Penzance
Stratford Shakespeare Festival
By W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Directed by Ethan McSweeny
Musical direction by Franklin Brasz
Set design by Anna Louizos
Runs until October 27
Review by Geoff Dale
Given the Festival’s past stellar record with Gilbert and Sullivan productions, it’s fair to say that neither the late and much lamented D'Oyly Carte Opera Company nor Queen Victoria would have been particularly amused with this year’s rendition of the rollicking The Pirates of Penzance.
After all, it’s been 18 long years since the company last tackled the wonderfully witty Victorian satire of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan, so one might have expected something a tad more than the uneven presentation the Festival has dished up of one of the duo’s most famous operettas.
So what exactly happened opening night? To be fair, the production has its share of ups and down.
First the good – first time G&S director Ethan McSweeny is true to the essentials of the story both in locale and content. The plotline remains virtually intact and the action thankfully still takes place along the coast of Cornwall.
Frederic is destined to be an apprentice of a pilot but his nursemaid Ruth mistakes her master's wish for the young man to pursue adventure as a pirate.
Years later, the 21-year-old Frederic is ready to leave his pirate comrades. Ruth pleads with him to take her with him. He agrees but then spots the frolicking daughters of the Major-General, falling in love with their obvious charms. He rejects Ruth. While most of the young ladies shy away because of his pirate past, Mabel is won over.
The plot caveat is his lingering sense of duty as a pirate and a cleverly concocted trap that involves a leap year birthday.
Musical director Franklin Brasz successfully captures the robust whimsy of the familiar score; Steve Ross is an engaging sergeant of the police; Kyle Blair’s Frederic is a delightful yet innocent seeker of adventure, while Amy Wallis, as she did as Lucy in You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, shows once again – this time as Mabel – that she possesses one of the finest set of pipes the festival is showcasing this year.
One more positive – the incorporation of elements of the Steampunk movement into the basic design is both successful and unique. In McSweeney’s own words in the program notes:
“I was thrilled to learn more about these retro-futurists in our midst and to incorporate into the design parts of their glorious expression of neo-Victoriana through the lens of Jules Verne. I think an important aspect of Steampunk is its efforts to render increasingly invisible and virtual world into ostensible and visible machines.”
A bit wordy perhaps but McSweeny got it right on that score.
On the down side is C. David Johnson’s bumbling Major-General Stanley. For the most part he gets much of the nonsensical aristocratic posturing, and even the accent but he stumbles badly in the delightful and usually show-stopping I Am the Very Model of A Modern Major- General, garbling much of the humorously awkward phrasing while appearing to be at least two beats behind the orchestra as the number comes to a conclusion.
Sean Arbuckle has moments as Thomas the Pirate King but a little more along the lines of a swashbuckling Errol Flynn might have given his character more gusto. Gabrielle Jones is a fun performer to watch but as Ruth, she seemed to be endlessly playing about with accents from different regions of the British Isles.
With largely perfunctory choreography and middling stock characterizations, the 2012 Pirates probably has some G&S aficionados sadly longing for a return to the glory years and the likes of the late Eric Donkin, the boisterous antics of Douglas Chamberlain and the gangly nimble-footed Richard McMillan.
Eighteen years is a long wait for such a so-so musical voyage.
**1/2 out of four stars.
Approximate running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes
Tickets: 1-800-567-1600 or online http://www.stratfordfestival.ca/
This review is also posted online at: the beat magazine