The Pirates of Penzance (New Version)

The Pirates of Penzance (New Version)
By Gilbert and Sullivan. Chatswood Musical Society. Director: Anne Veitch. Musical Director: Gerard Plummer. Choreographer: Stephanie Edmonds. Zenith Theatre, Chatswood. May 2 – 10, 2014.

Since Joe Papp’s swashbuckling 1980s revitalization of the G & S favourite on Broadway I’ve seen so many new versions of The Pirates of Penzance that it’s hard to disentangle the ‘new’ from the ‘old is new again’ in Chatswood’s energetic production.

Since this ‘new Broadway’ incarnation first came along there’s been a second Simon Gallaher / John English version, Opera Australia’s staging with Anthony Warlow’s Pirates of Carribean spin and even a British all-male version.

Musically the production revels in the brassier, boisterous Broadway orchestrations, impressively delivered by Gerard Plummer and his orchestra.

The pirate chorus open the show in roisterous, skylarking style; knockabout stuff, but if you were blown out of the water in the 1980s by the athleticism and gymnastics of the pirates, this version gets off to an enthusiastic, energetic, yet somehow more conventional start.

Joshua Oxley’s vain, swaggering peacock of a Frederick, the pirate apprentice, Anthony Salven’s cheerful, lively pirate lieutenant Samuel and Andrew Dickson’s rambunctious Pirate King lead a genially rabble-rousing band of pirates.

Early on the well-timed delivery of the lines and gags is much as it’s been for these past 135 years. Some of the swashbuckling business and shtick from the 80s version remains, somewhat toned down, like the Kevin Kline / Jon English Pirate King chest flashing (was the cut of the shirt the problem?), very underplayed.

Allison Griffiths, slighter and seemingly more youthful than your usual Ruth, less domineering, takes much of the sting out of the inherent 19th century misogyny.

Oh joy, oh rapture, about 20 minutes into the show the compact female ensemble bursts onto the stage, capturing the mischievous spirit of the Broadway version, with their effervescent escapades, led in cheeky, sparkling style by Zoe Landis (Kate), Melody Duan (Edith) and Madeleine Halls (Isabel); finally the spirit of the reinvented Pirates is truly stamped on this production

Georgia Burley’s Mabel is a gorgeous delight, milking the role for all its comic potential and the new version’s diva pastiche, singing beautifully with a fresh, young soprano.

Paul Murton’s Major General also gets right into the spirit of the Broadway version, combining homage to the original with some well-played theatrical shtick, and some adept breaking of the fourth wall.

The Broadway dance re-invention of the Police choruses gives way to an amusing, well-choreographed and executed Keystone Cops style of slapstick marching, led by William Sunderland’s assured Sergeant; it’s an earlier rework that’s now become quasi-traditional in its own right.

In one distinct improvement on the ‘new’ version, though, the superfluous interpolated trio from Ruddigore is gone, boosting the pace of the second act. This, and an aria from Pinafore, added to give the soprano more singing in an underwritten role, really put the brakes the brisk second act, as originally written.

Neil Shotter’s set design, in close creative collaboration with lighting designer James Wallis, is a simple, effective highlight. Going for less-is-more, a cyclorama, well-lit, a central platform, timber finishes, ropes and attractive strategic props provide a great look. The costuming, hired from various sources, is attractive and well co-ordinated.

While Chatswood Musical Society’s enthusiastic Pirates often veers closer to traditional G & S than the ‘new’ Broadway version, the show remains remarkably fresh, going by the opening night audience reaction.

Overall, Chatswood’s Pirates is an entertaining wedding of the ways, with something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.

Neil Litchfield

Photography: Grant Leslie - Perfect Images.

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