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It is, it is a glorious thing to see a Pirate King
Pirates have landed in Brisbane, but rather than running for the hills, I recommend you make a beeline for QPAC's Concert Hall, where you can see Harvest Rain's highly anticipated production of The Pirates of Penzance, but only until Sunday evening.
I attended the packed house premiere performance last night and I have to say that the excellent Harvest Rain Theatre Company, one of Australia's leading musical theatre companies, has done it again. This particular blend of mirth, music and mayhem is, quite simply, marvellous.
It's produced by Harvest Rain's Tim O'Connor, and Simon Gallaher, who has a long association with the musical that launched his career in the 1980s, is this time on board as director. His genuine love for this Gilbert and Sullivan classic is obvious throughout the more than 2 hours of infectious fun.
We arrived a little early and soaked up the energetic vibe amongst eager patrons while we enjoyed a pre-performance drink. On taking our seats we were greeted by a set composed of craggy rocks and columns, steep stairs, and a wharf. The orchestra, in a very clever touch, were perched atop a large rocky outcrop, allowing them to be directly involved in all the action. The striking set, inventively realised by award-winning set designer Josh McIntosh, held the promise of plenty of athletic, swashbuckling action, which the production delivered in spades.
The spectacular set. Image from Harvest Rain Facebook page.
Act I began with thunder and lightning to the accompaniment of the overture and then a collection of 'scurvy dogs' swaggered on stage, led by the surprise of the evening for me, Andrew O'Keefe - but more of him later. The accelerator was put straight to the floor in this opening number and was rarely let off for the rest of this high energy production.
I won't give you all the details of the story, suffice to say it hangs on the go-to plot thread of musicals since they began: boy meets girl, various complications arise and are resolved, boy gets girl. But as with all Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, the story is stitched comically together with Sullivan's musically elegant and catchy score and Gilbert's witty and humourous lyrics, both of which have lost nothing since their birth in 1879.
The production introduces two relative newcomers to the musical theatre scene. As Frederic, the reluctant pirate, Billy Bourchier pleasantly evokes Frederic's credulous nature and sense of duty and his fine tenor voice met all the vocal demands placed on it throughout the evening. Georgina Hopson as Frederic's love interest, Mabel, is suitably sweet and innocent. She performed the difficult range of vocal contortions seemingly effortlessly.
Frederic and Mabel. Image from Harvest Rain Facebook page.
The ever reliable veteran, Nancye Hayes, proves that she can still tread those boards with style and John Wood (resplendent in vivid yellow), while having some minor tempo difficulties with the tongue-twisting I am the very model of a modern Major-General, gave a solid performance. He performed especially well the added lyrics for this number; they cleverly referenced the current Queensland political situation and recent cyclones. It was a nice local touch, also played out in some of the dialogue.
All of this leads me to the star of the show, the pirate king, Andrew O'Keefe, who was a revelation. Who knew? I've never been a fan of his folksy, perky TV persona; it's the last thing I'd want to wake up to on weekend mornings. Vocally, he was very good, and he threw himself into the physical requirements of the role with abandon, running backwards up and down stairs, leaping across towering columns, swinging on a rope over the audience and performing a daring dive into the arms of his pirate troupe.
I was happy that his Pirate King wasn't just some pale imitation of Captain Jack Sparrow, the most recent theatrical yardstick for pirate characters. While there were some elements of Captain Jack's over-the-top persona, this Pirate King was all O'Keefe's own. His timing and delivery were first class, his swagger and laugh suitably hearty and piratical. In short, he pulled it off in a way I never suspected he could. Bravo!
Andrew O'Keefe as the Pirate King. Who knew? Image from Harvest Rain Facebook page.
I think the real success of a musical often rests on the strength of the supporting cast and the choreography, and these are both areas where Pirates excels. The superb supporting cast includes Kimberley Hodgson, Natalie Greer and Astin Blaik, who were scene-stealers as Mabel's sisters. Part ingenue and part 60s 'do wop' lounge singers, complete with outrageous beehive hair-dos, they displayed great comic timing and excellent vocals. Dean Vince, as the hapless police sergeant, was hilarious, and Gary Jones good as Samuel. The musical and vocal arrangements were a treat, with a highlight being the harmonies in Hail, Poetry.
The choreography by Callum Mansfield was a real highlight. It was at times boisterous and athletic, and other times stylised and nuanced. The chorus pieces involving the policemen were a standout, and all the ensemble numbers were brilliantly realised by the talented performers, who demonstated a real depth of athletic ability as well as dancing creds. The Finale, or Pirates Megamix, as it's been dubbed for this production, brought it all together in a rousing pirate send-off, where the cast seemed to be enjoying it as much as the audience.
Dean Vince and the policemen chorus. Image from Harvest Rain Facebook page.
I've already mentioned the set for Act I, which also included a ship sailing up to the wharf at one stage. At the beginning of Act II the change of setting to the Major-General's residence was effected when a spectacular arched building facade dropped slowly into place.
Overall, I don't think there was really a weak link in this pirate chain. Just as it should be, this Pirates of Penzance is a hilarious hoot that had the entire audience on their feet for a standing ovation last night.
"It is, it is a glorious thing to [see] a pirate king", and the rest of this talented troupe, so purchase your tickets online now. One extra performance has been added to the schedule to meet the demand. Prices range from $69 to $119 with group discounts available for parties of ten or more. The limited season finishes on Sunday 22 March. Don't miss out.
Check out some of the action in this Harvest Rain video: