It shames me to admit that before The McGill Savoy Society’s presentation of The Pirates of Penzance, I had never seen a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. Although I was familiar with the general tone and the plot of the operetta, I entered Moyse Hall with an open mind. Upon reading that the Savoy Society director, Roger Andrews, had directed this specific operetta four times—yes, four separate times—I knew I’d be in good hands.
The two-act operetta follows Frederic (Sebastian Comtois), a pirate’s apprentice finally free of his servitude after 21 years of loyal labour. Mistakenly conscripted to the Pirate King’s (Aaron Meredith) boisterous gang at the fragile age of eight, Frederic struggles with choosing between his intense sense of duty towards his adopted family and his love for the Major-General’s (Scott Cope) beautiful daughter, Mabel (Sevan Kochkarian). The resulting conflict between both groups involves exactly the campy sort of tomfoolery one would expect from a Gilbert & Sullivan classic: A chorus of cowardly policemen, a surprisingly haunting interpretive ballet performance from a grown man in a nightgown, and an unfortunate technicality involving leap years.
The operetta truly shone when it embraces its joyful camp and exuberant silliness. From the first act’s introduction of the daughters to the Major-General’s ballet performance, almost every scene was delivered with a wink and a chuckle, reminding the audience that they were in on the joke.
Perhaps because of the immensely difficult vocal work necessary for the operetta, the Pirates cast shone across the board. In the lead role, Comtois embraced his character’s naïveté and masterfully guided the audience through the plot, providing a stable anchor in a sea of ridiculous characters. It’s clear, however, that Kochkarian’s Mabel was set to be the star of the show; her vocal prowess was repeatedly on display, and she drew the largest applause from the audience over the course of the night. Kochkarian expertly wove her way around the vocal acrobatics integral to the role of Mabel and effortlessly imbued nerve and confidence into the take-charge character.
The scene-stealers of the show, however, were not the leading couple, but the trio of larger-than-life supporting characters. Cope’s portrayal of the Major-General proved that he was born for the role, perfectly encompassing the man’s influential yet fundamentally silly persona. Cope embraced Gilbert’s tongue-twisting wordplay and delivers every syllable of the infamous “Modern Major General” song with the confidence and skill of a top-tier performer.
Meredith’s Pirate King bridged the gap between the unnamed pirate gang and the audience, demonstrating that physical comedy is an exceptional talent when done right. Olivia Barnes’ Ruth was also a sight to behold: From the first scene to the last, the audience’s biggest chuckles erupted directly because of Barnes’ knack for lively characterization and outrageous comedy. Even as the scene shifted from her character, my eyes followed her for her outrageous reactions alone.
Despite the overall strengths of the show, it was not without its weaknesses: The show dragged on occasionally, especially during the slower songs; the choreography shones during group numbers, but was uninspired in duets. The chorus, although wonderful during the first act, clearly felt the fatigue set in as the choreography became unsynchronized, namely during the police line.
Overall, the show was a thoroughly enjoyable experience as long as one embraced the inherent campiness. From the oddly good-hearted pirates, to the exuberant chorus of sisters, and the cowardly band of policemen, the show was filled to the brim with charisma and quirk. The Savoy Society put on a madly entertaining show definitely worth the trip to Moyse Hall.