Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic comedy operetta is joyfully silly, now gracing the Toronto stage
To my eternal shame, I have never in all my years of theatre-going managed to see a Gilbert and Sullivan show. Aside from a few parodies, I went into the Toronto Operetta Theatre’s production of The Pirates of Penzance, currently playing at the St. Lawrence Centre, totally blind—I knew the “Modern Major General” patter-song, but only through cultural osmosis. One of the nicest surprises about the TOT’s production was how accessible it felt, without sacrificing the broad humour and joyful silliness of the era and genre it belongs to.
In Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous operetta, young pirate apprentice Frederic (Colin Ainsworth) has finally reached the end of his indentured servitude. Having been mistakenly conscripted into a pirate crew at the tender age of eight, he finds himself torn by his moral duty to fulfill his obligations to his pirate ‘family’ and his love for a respectable young woman named Mabel (Vania Lizbeth Chan). The clash between pirates and aristocrats goes about as well as you might expect, and the comedy lampoons everything from the concept of Englishness, the extremes of duty, young love and morality itself.
Despite having been written in 1879, the TOT’s production largely avoids feeling dated, mostly due to its likeable willingness to poke fun at its own tropes, all with gentle affection. What’s especially nice, though, is that it does so by adapting the existing wit and silliness of Gilbert and Sullivan’s stylings with occasional hints of modern sensibilities; occasionally, the operetta feels like it’s playing up the silliness as a comment on both the plot and the genre itself. Importantly, though, that silliness doesn’t feel ironic or detached, but rather a natural extension of the original. It feels like Gilbert and Sullivan with all their wit and winking very much intact, but twisted just slightly to remind you that you’re watching this operetta in 2016. It’s deftly done, and grants the production heaps of personality.
That modern feel does come with the occasional stumbling block. Rewriting a chunk of the “Modern Major General” to lampoon Trump feels like hitting an easy target, for example, though it was certainly a crowd-pleaser (it seems to me that the show is so overwhelmingly English that it’s hard to swing more Canadian or American references). Others—such as the daughters all giving their father thumbs up during his pontificating number, or the cops sucking on lollipops as they contemplate the tragedy of having to do their jobs—feel organic, delivered totally straight and dry to great effect.
The singing, as might be expected, is excellent across the board, with Chen’s performance as Mabel earning the longest applause of the evening. Mabel has some incredible vocal gymnastics, which Chen tackles with seeming ease, imbuing Mabel with a lot of blunt gumption and an unstoppable willingness to roll with the punches. You can see her bursting to confess her love to Frederic before he’s halfway through his song, and she comes across as a take-charge gal used to getting what she wants. Her chemistry with Ainsworth, who plays Frederic with youthful sincerity, is sweet and engaging.
Elizabeth Beeler’s Ruth is hardy and sympathetic, overly dramatic and hilariously lusty in turns. Meanwhile, the Modern Major General himself, Curtis R. Sullivan, has wonderful comic timing, allowing the character’s absurdity to come through with merely a few smug facial expressions and some bluntly-delivered lines. Both were scene-stealers.
The set is fairly sparse, which works well to highlight the wonderful colours, patterns and fabrics of the costume work, which is easily the show’s best visual strength. There’s a kaleidoscope of jewel tones whenever the pirates crowd the stage, while the daughters have more pastel shades, offset by bursts of colours beneath white frills. Ruth’s costume in particular—gold everywhere, and massive frills—was a particular favourite. Kudos to Howard Tsvi Kaplan.
Overall, The Pirates of Penzance is great fun, and served as a thoroughly enjoyable introduction to Gilbert and Sullivan for me. I was surprised, during the performance, at how often I was laughing at this good-natured show: at the soft-hearted pirates, the cowardly policemen, the sly daughters and the exaggerated passion of the lovers. It’s so hard not to fall for the joyful silliness of this show and the catchy tunes it offers, and I implore you to check it out while you still can!
- The Pirates of Penzance plays at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (27 Front St. East) until January 8, 2016.
- Four performances remain: Dec. 31 (3 pm), Jan. 6 (8 pm), Jan. 7 (3 pm), Jan. 8 (3 pm).
- Tickets range from $49.00 – $95.00 and can be purchased online or through the box office (416-366-7723).
Photo of Curtis Sullivan as Major-General Stanley and Female Chorus by Emily Ding.