In his program note comments, G&S novice director Ethan McSweeny explains to David Prosser that “I want to retain the great material that G&S left us while invigorating it with a contemporary sensibility.” Judging from opening night, the only question that can possibly remain is: Why?
Since 1879 The Pirates of Penzance has delighted millions worldwide in its natural state. Having been in the pit on dozens of occasions and conducted the operetta dozens more, I can readily attest that the finest performances came from those directors who meddled the least with the original material (traditionally, the Major-General’s patter song gets a verse of contemporization and that’s largely the end of it). Classics are usually called so for a reason: not many rework Beethoven’s symphonies beyond adding a few notes in the brass that weren’t physically possible in the day. Much of Shakespeare’s canon has been reset in different eras and locales, but the text is left intact.
Thanks to McSweeny’s excessive licence, the music was altered and expanded at will (the early “stomp” insertions being laughably out of kilter, style and sensibility with the marvellously crafted urtext and the prolonged second-act fight scene was just as much a bomb as its long-fused explosive).
Consequently, those intimately familiar with what could have been walked away disappointed while newcomers to the oeuvre never really knew what they were missing. (The remainder seemed to enjoy what to them was just harmless fun rather than brilliantly constructed social commentary with tunes you can actually remember.)
Beyond the staging, the music was less than stellar. Franklin Brasz seemed content to provide a cursory beat and leave the dynamic shadings and vital phrasing on both sides of the “footlights” for another day. You know you have a real musical problem when “Hail Poetry” is rewarded with deafening silence.
Of the leads, tenor Kyle Blair’s undaunted Frederic provided the only consistent pleasure of the night; Amy Wallis gave it her all as the vocally heroic Mabel but hasn’t yet discovered the joy of upper-register support or the magic of occasionally pulling back in the more comfortable ranges. Wisely, she zipped through coloratura bits, saving all from moments of distress but also robbing the cadenzas of their simultaneous art and comic intent. Sean Arbuckle’s Pirate King was engaging if nondescript while Gabrielle Jones’ acting smarts far outshone her melodic delivery. C. David Johnson (never aided or abetted by Brasz) ought to be court-martialled for being unable to rattle off his most important number, grinding to halt at one point and seldom in sync with the orchestra when the lines did come out as intended. The chalk board nod to Des McAnuff got the cheap laugh but lacked a genuinely creative twist much less convoluted rhyme that is the hallmark of the showstopper.
The nervous Nellie police (rather ably led by C. David Johnson) initially held much promise but the bagpipe payoff was too lame by half and the Union Jack boxer gag could be seen a mile away. The attempt to move about à la Monty Python failed in the lack of razor-crisp precision that only dozens’ more hours in rehearsal might produce.
The Wards’ initial entry was so butch that one wondered just what sort of show this might become and the rotten-tooth beauty (along with many other physical/visual yuks) seemed more like The Three Stooges on a very bad day.
Finally, if some sort of link with the present is wanted, how do the key narrative elements as the year 1940 for the real conclusion of Frederic’s indentures and unbridled love (and appearance) for Queen Victoria jive with 2012?
Alas, the Poor Wondering Ones were just as much behind the scenes as on the stage even if Johnny Depp fans will admire Anna Louizos’ sets and Paul Tazewell’s costumes. JWR