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Saturday, 2 June 2012

Review: Pirates of Penzance Problematic, Pulls its Punches

C. David Johnson (centre) with members of the company.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

by WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Directed by Ethan McSweeny, with musical direction by Franklin Brasz

The story: Having just turned twenty-one, Frederic decides it is time to leave the band of pirates to whom he was mistakenly indentured by his hard-of-hearing nurse, Ruth. Having served his duty with them, however, he now feels it is his duty as a free man to apprehend them for piracy. Before gathering his forces to do so, he meets a troop of sisters and falls in love with one of them, Mabel. He is revisited by the Pirate King and Ruth, who tell him that since he was born on February 29th in a leap year, he is in fact only 5 years old and bound to the pirates until his actual 21st birthday - his sense of duty is so strong he must part from his beloved, until the pirates themselves are captured by the ever trembling watch.

Members of the company. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
It is hard, as a theatre enthusiast, to see a show with such promise not live up to it. The return of Gilbert and Sullivan to Stratford's stages has had quite a buzz, and with Ethan McSweeny at the helm - he who turned in the luscious and daring Dangerous Liaisons of 2010 - Pirates of Penzance should have been a triumphant return for them both.

The production starts out strongly. The visible set before the show is either the scaffolding of a ship or the scaffolding behind the scenes of a theatre. Turns out, it is both, in a clever framing device. But this device is abandoned in the second half of the show. 

The musical score is given a sea-shanty facelift for the numbers that take place on the ship and is delightful, but they did not similarly  tinker at all with the remaining score. 

There are elements of steam-punk - an obvious fit for updating a Victorian operetta - like the clock above the stage, the ship's steering wheel, and the pith helmets, goggles, and corsets with their brass and leather trappings. But unless one knows what to look for, these elements are easily missed. They do not go far enough with the look for younger generations, perhaps at the risk of confusing older generations. Neither generation wins.

The first half of the production has its tongue planted so far in its cheek it threatens to come out the other side with inside jokes, slapstick and digs at the operetta style - look for Ms. Wallis warbling up and down the scale as she sings the first syllable of her name "May..." and then drop the last note to a dull "bull", for instance. It gets a huge laugh, and the audience is delighted with it, as they are when during the demanding "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General", when C. David Johnson's blackboard reveals the lineage of artistic directors at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
Amy Wallace as Mabel. Photo by
Cylla von Tiedemann.

It gets a guffaw (even with the actor losing breath during it) but one gets the sense something is going terribly awry.

For instance, does anyone outside the immediate orbit of the Festival care about its artistic directors? Does anyone in the wider Canadian culture care that much about duty that they could identify with Frederic's dilemma? Does anyone under the age of 25 - at whom this production is supposedly aimed - recognize Queen Victoria when they see her?

For all its steam-punk style, the production loses steam in the oddest way in the second half. As mentioned the meta-theatre frame disappears, the tongue recedes out of cheek and gaffs are evident. (I noted at least three near misses opening night, and possibly one costume malfunction.) Instead of precision there was chaos. The one earnest number performed (Stay Frederic Stay) by Ms. Wallis and Mr. Blair is beautiful and touching in every way, but is completely out of tone with the rest of the production thus far.

It is as if the director got bored, abandoned ship, and left the cast at sea.

They do wonderfully well - Sean Arbuckle gives his Pirate King panache with enough Captain Jack Sparrow to seem familiar but without being a copy. Kyle Blair is an always sincere Frederic, immediately likable with great dead-pan and a wonderful voice, and Amy Wallis plays Mabel as a likea"bull" brat with the voice of a nightingale. Gabrielle Jones, Naomi Costain, Steve Ross and Abigail Winter-Culliford all shine in eminently memorable performances. The production may get waterlogged but the cast does a great job of bailing.

There is much to be delighted about in the first half of the production and not enough in the second. It is enough to make a theatre-lover cry "Avast!" and grab a sabre in frustration.

The Pirates of Penzance sail the waters of the Avon Theatre until October 27th.
Gabrielle Jones, Kyle Blair and Sean Arbuckle as
Ruth, Frederick and the Priate King. Photo by
Cylla von Tiedemann

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