Pirates of Penzance

Pirates of Penzance is a Blast – A Cannon Blast, that is…

One question – is it the bomb with the burning wick or the cannon ball? The cannon explodes on stage and the sizzling bomb is tossed around. But which one finally ends the crazy antics? Stratford Festival’s Pirates of Penzance is an over-the-top comedy with everything thrown in. The bomb is tossed from person to person all over the stage, until, on opening night, it rolled into the orchestra pit…let’s hope no musicians were injured in the making of this show.

Kyle Blair as Frederic, Amy Wallis as Mabel. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

This version of the well-known Gilbert and Sullivan operetta may be pushing the limits of silliness, but it’s all in good fun, and a talented cast manages to pull it off. Young Frederic is disappointed that he has been indentured with a crew of pirates by mistake. As Ruth’s charge, he was supposed to have been trained as ship’s pilot, but she made the error (pilot and pirate sound alike!) and then stayed with him. He honoured his commitment to learn the craft of piracy until his 21st birthday. He is ready to leave and Ruth wants to come with him, and although he is 21 and Ruth is 47, Ruth tells him there are no girls out there that are prettier than she is. He escapes Ruth and finds bevy of young beauties, quickly falling for the lovely Mabel.

But along comes the Pirate King with Ruth to tell him that since he was born on February 29th, he hasn’t reached age 21 yet. As an honourable young pirate, he realizes he must return to the life of the pirates. The beautiful young women are all wards of Major-General Stanley, who, together with the police take on the pirates. That’s when the big fight scene ensues, bombs, cannons, and all. Somehow everyone survives and eventually they are all paired up in a wedding scene.

Kyle Blair is a wonderful as Frederic. Like his role as Billy in 42nd Street, he demonstrates his rich tenor voice in Pirates. But here he also has the chance to show his comedic skills. Gabrielle Jones also demonstrates her talent for comedy as she pursues the young Frederic. She appears in one hilarious costume that I won’t describe here for fear of spoiling your fun. Sean Arbuckle is entertaining as the not-so-scary Pirate King who has a soft spot for orphans.

Gabrielle Jones as Ruth, Kyle Blair as Frederic, Sean Arbuckle as Pirate King. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Steve Ross as the Sergeant heads up the tea-sipping police force. Like all the police, he wears a kilt: men in skirts are always good for comedy, particularly when they show us what is under those kilts. Amy Wallis as Mabel charms the handsome young Frederic. In the first act, she does well with the operatic songs, but by act two on opening night, she seemed to stretch to sustain the notes.

C. David Johnson is Major General Stanley, and sings the tongue-twisting song “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”. He gets tied up in the lyrics in a few places, not spitting them out the speed and accuracy that should have been achieved. But the opening night audience was completely forgiving, especially when the 60 year history of the Stratford Festival was worked into the lyrics.

There are excellent dancers among the pirates and police – obviously they are good as most do double duty with 42nd Street where they must dance with precision. The lovely young women are beautiful and funny – with special mention to Jacquelyn French who plays the only homely girl of the bunch, and makes full use of her bad teeth and poor eyesight.

The interesting set is described as steampunk – an unusual clock with many gears keeps time over the stage. The show opens with the audience being privy to the back stage area of a theatre: actors getting dressed, going over dance moves, and checking the rigging. That same rigging doubles for the workings of the pirate ship.

Pirates of Penzance is crazy comedy: Director Ethan McSweeny takes it over the top, but the Gilbert and Sullivan story still works.

The Pirates of Penzance continues at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in repertoire until October 27. Call 1-800-567-1600 or go to www.stratfordshakespearefestival.com for tickets.

The Pirates of Penzance
Libretto by W. S. Gilbert
Music by Arthur Sullivan
Directed by Ethan McSweeny
Choreographed by Marcos Santana
Musical direction by Franklin Brasz
Performed by Kyle Blair, Amy Wallis, C. David Johnson, Gabrielle Jones, Sean Arbuckle et al.
Avon Theatre, Stratford
May 3 to October 27, 2012
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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