Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Pirates of Penzance was first performed in New York on 31 December 1879. It proceeded to have a highly successful run that would fix the style of the piece for almost a hundred years. A rethinking of the work lead to the acclaimed 1981 Broadway version of Pirates, restaged for Melbourne audiences by The Production Company.
Under the direction of Dean Bryant, the production has a cast of strong vocal talent, and achieves moments of delectable refinement to rival cucumber sandwiches in a seaside tearoom.
The G&S catalogue has endured through performances by musical theatre companies of all stripes, and shows such as this family-friendly operetta of bumbling police and not-so-very-bad-at-all pirates have been a gateway into theatre for many.
To quickly explain, the brave and decent Frederic (Gareth Keegan), apprenticed as a child by mistake to a band of pirates, has turned 21 and is about to be free of his duty to serve the Pirate King (Adam Murphy). Naïve to the fairer sex, save his nurse Ruth (Genevieve Lemon), Frederic becomes smitten with the lovely Mabel (Claire Lyon), one of the many daughters of Major General Stanley (Wayne Scott Kermond). Now free of servitude, Frederic is duty bound to eliminate his former crewmates, and enlists the Sergeant of Police (Brent Hill) and his men for the public good. Things turn out to be not quite so simple, giving ample opportunity for swashbuckling, fast patter songs, and some very English manners.
The production places the militarily-uniformed orchestra at the centre of the stage, under a bandstand that occasionally serves to support the action of the players as they lurk, hide or battle through the story and there are many playful touches, notably in the first act set on the Cornish coast. The absurdity of a pirate ship that spontaneously assembles mid-song amidst the sea of oversized blue confetti took the appreciative audience on a voyage of well-judged and very watchable silliness.
The casting ensures that Pirates delivers a high-standard evening of musical theatre. For those G&S tragics having expectations from other productions, some of the choreography wasn’t terribly ambitious and in a show where character introductions and story exposition is largely achieved through song, some of the pieces were a bit of a struggle to interpret. These matters may be consequences of the rather short rehearsal periods for shows presented by The Production Company.
Regardless, they are more than compensated for by the principal cast. Keegan’s Frederic is an earnest and tender partner to Lyon’s expressive Mable. Further, the power of Lyon’s voice gave a highly amusing, Matrixesque visual gag where Frederic and audience got to experience her intensity of feelings. Murphy – possibly bringing aspects of Kevin Klein’s film character and appearance to his role – shows a confidently roguish authority, and Lemon ranges from the desolation of rejection to levity at the paradox of Frederic’s loyalties. Kermond adds a comedic lifts to his scenes with enthusiasm for gallivanting around the stage.
The ensemble add interest to their scenes, such through the daughters all being given their own nuance, and the movement of the police makes them suitably inept comic figures. All were especially helped by the costume design team of Tim Chappel and Owen Phillips, with touches such as the pirates’ feathered tricorn hats, and outfits coloured from teal to garnet, and the daughters’ night-dresses that enhanced the individual characters.
Under Musical Director Mathew Frank, the orchestra deliver a polished performance throughout the range of material.
Given the talent it is unfortunate that some of the daughters (Kate by Josie Lane) had mere cameos, but as the Sargeant sang, “Still, perhaps it would be wise Not to carp or criticise”. Far better to not think too much, just go and enjoy, particularly with such a short season.