From the fourteen comic operas written between 1871 and 1896 by dramatist W.S.Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan (or more affectionately known as Gilbert and Sullivan or G&S), one which is most famous and therefore has great popularity, is The Pirates of Penzance. Although originally written in 1879, it has lasted the test of time, and still elicits laughter from each production staged and therefore remains a popular choice for companies to produce. One such company is The Therry Dramatic Society, who have produced a fresh interpretation for such an old show, and in doing so, continue Therry's long-standing tradition of staging one musical every year.
The Pirates of Penzance is Gilbert and Sullivan's fifth collaboration, and follows the amusing, silly and unlikely story of young orphan Frederic, whom was apprenticed to an inefficient, tender-hearted band of pirates, through the mistake of his hard of hearing nursery-maid, Ruth. During his indenture, he meets and falls in love with Mabel, a maiden and daughter to Major-General Stanley, and plans to marry her after he has completed the twenty-first year of his indenture. However, Frederic soon discovers that the indenture is based on birthdays and not calender year. He soon realises therefore, that as he is a "leap year baby", he technically only has a birthday every four years, meaning that he has a duty to the pirates for much longer than he first anticipated, until he is 63 years of age, to be precise. Consequently, Mabel must make the ultimate decision whether or not she can wait for him for such a long time.
While this operetta is now 140 years old, there have been several revisions to ensure that the content, style and humour remains modern. One of these is the 1980 revival by Joseph Papps, originally staged in Central Park during the New York Shakespeare Festival, before moving to Broadway, where it won several awards. It is this version which Therry's production is based upon, and under the direction of Richard Trevaskis, it is, on the whole, a successful show. Trevaskis ensures that he maintains the integrity of the original script by ensuring that there is plenty of comic moments throughout, maximising every opportunity to elicit laughter from the audience. Some of this laughter is achieved by having actors directly address the orchestra and through the unusual use of cross dressing pirates and maidens, to amusing effect. Most significantly though, maximising the comic moments relies on a suitable and entertaining cast to carry the show, and Trevaskis has assembled a solid cast who do exactly that.
As Frederic, Jared Frost has nice vocals, but on opening night, he appeared to be nervous and lacking in confidence, still finding his character, but hopefully this is something that will improve as the season progresses. His love interest Mabel is played well by Serena Martino-Williams, who has beautiful soprano vocals suitable for such an operetta, making her a true delight to listen to.
As Ruth, Vanessa Lee Shirley is well cast, albeit slightly young for such a role. Shirley has perfect comic timing and provides much of the comic moments of the musical, eliciting many laughs from the appreciative audience. In much the same way, Chad Crittle's comic timing, confidence and humour as The Pirate King, makes him a suitable fit also. His primary song Oh Better Far to Live and Die...a Pirate King is particularly hilarious and a fine example of innovative ensemble blocking and choreography.
These actors are also complemented well by Nathan Quadrio and Nicholas Bishop in the supporting roles of Samuel and Major-General Stanley, respectively. Whilst both actors deliver fine performances with nice vocals and stage presence, particular mention must go to Bishop, who navigates the famous Model of a Modern Major-General song reasonably well, a challenging feat for any amatuer actor.
Aside from the cast, the production elements are a mixture of that which is good, and that which could have been executed more effectively.
Choreography by Konstanz Symeonakis suitably aligns with the capabilities of the ensemble cast, and while simple, is fun, quirkly and intentionally silly, and suitable for a musical of this sort.
Musical direction by Mark Sandon is of high quality, and he leads the orchestra in playing each note well, whilst sound design and operation by Marty Gilbert, from Allpro Audio, ensures that their sound is appropriately amplified without drowning out the vocals from the cast. However, both orchestra and actors could have benefited from slightly more volume, as it was occasionally difficult to hear at the back of the theatre.
Cotumes designed by Vanessa Lee Shirley are particularly interesting and intricate, but confusing. While the program stipulates that the musical happens in "an indeterminate time in the past", the maidens' monochrome costumes are reminiscent of those worn by women in the 1920s, which becomes confusing, as this era does not align with the final scene whereby the characters are pledging their devotion to Queen Victoria, although she died in 1901. Furthermore, the pirate costumes lack costuming typical of that of a stereotypical pirate, instead costumed with formal waistcoats, suspenders and flat caps, making them look more like a group of news boys. In particular though, is the business-like attire of Frederic, who doesn't much resemble a pirate, meaning that his "alarming costume" when he first announces himself to the maidens, is just that: alarming, but for the wrong reason.
Adding further to this confusion is the set (or lack thereof), also designed by Shirley, in collaboration with Tim De Jong. While the large multi-leveled set piece allows for innovative blocking in the first half, it is dull and unsophisticated, particularly in the second act when the set piece is opened to reveal a monochrome decor (although the decision to wait until the commencement of the second act, to have the stage hands open this set piece in full view of the audience, appears pointless, and is cumbersome and distracting). Unfortunately, lighting design by Mike Phillips also does little to enchance or complement the set. While a series of bright colours in sequence illuminate the cyc wall to prevent it from being bare, they appear arbitrary and are ineffective in contributing to the story. Furthermore, on several occasions, the ensemble cast were only very dimly light, as there was not adequate follow spots for them.
Nonetheless, while this production has its faults, so too do the pirates featured within it, making it all the more acceptable for the production to have its faults. In short, whilst this is not the best amateur production of Pirates which has been staged in recent times, it is a still a fun and entertaining show, and is good for a laugh, making it a great time at the theatre.