The McGill Savoy Society’s presentation of The Pirates of Penzance both delights and entrances the audience with light-hearted charm.
The Pirates of Penzance, or, The Slave of Duty is a late 19th-century comic opera, featuring the work of Gilbert & Sullivan. The hilarious portrayal of Victorian sensibilities and fanciful situations remains something of a cult phenomenon – similar in many ways to Monty Python’s dry British humour.
The satirical musical tells the tale of the dutiful Frederick (Michael Loewen), a young man who has been accidentally apprenticed to a crew of cheerfully singing pirates. The comedy begins when Frederick turns 21 and is liberated from his apprenticeship, at which point he responsibly decides to turn on his old comrades. However, before he has time to enlist help, Frederick encounters the beautiful daughters of Major General Stanley, who succeed in enchanting both him and the rest of his old crew. Madness and hilarity ensue as the pirates try to wed the daughters, forcing Frederick and the Major General to work together in order to prevent them from carrying the daughters away.
A few skilled lead actors control the performance, so the majority of the cast’s average acting abilities do little to detract from the audience’s enjoyment. In particular, the stage is dominated by the talented Rebecca Woodmass in the role of Mabel, Frederick’s main love interest. Strong performances from McGill Savoy President Cameron MacLeod (as the Major General), Loewen, and Erin Grainger (as Ruth) also shine as they convincingly portray often-ridiculous characters. But the gusto of the chorus sections is what carries The Pirates of Penzance; people will find it hard not to sing along to catchy musical numbers like “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” and “Hush! Hush! Not a Word!” Despite having almost 30 people onstage during certain dance numbers, the opera manages not to degenerate into confusion, which is evidence of almost five full months of gruelling rehearsals.
Backing the cast is an enormous orchestral section, conducted by McGill composition student Michal Novotny. The orchestra had the tendency to drown out soloists – especially during the first act – however, the degree of coordination with the singers is impressive. One hopes that as the musicians adapt their playing to the acoustics of Moyse Hall, they will adjust their volume accordingly.
But music aside, the technical aspects make this production of Penzance unique. Set designer Melanie Michaud created backdrops with a two-dimensional storybook effect in mind, evoking a vaguely Oriental feel. For costumes and lighting, bright, vivid colours were used to reflect the cheerful mood of the story, and the cast’s wardrobe was cleverly designed so the daughters had colour-coordinated hats and dresses to reflect their ordered character, while the pirates had mismatched outfits to mirror their disordered nature.
However, Patterson’s skilled technical work and his creative team are not what make this show a delight. Nor is the music the reason why you leave Moyse Hall with a spring in your step. What drives this show is the boundless enthusiasm and flawless comedic timing of the chorus section, who have slaved endlessly to present an incredibly enjoyable performance.
Pirates of Penzance plays February 12-13 and 18-12 in Moyse Hall. Tickets are $12 for students and can be reserved at mcgillsavoy.ca.