The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan, a Vancouver Opera production at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Dec. 8 at 7: 30 p.m. and Dec. 9 at 1: 30 p.m. Tickets: 604-683-0222.
IT'S difficult to explain the allure of Gilbert and Sullivan to the uninitiated.
It's operetta, not opera and some might imply that means the music isn't as good. And it's not just English, it's Victorian! Can't be relevant to modern Canadian society, can it?
Tell that to the sold-out crowd on opening night who clapped and stomped in rhythm at the curtain call like young Canadians, not elderly, deaf Brits.
In truth, Pirates of Penzance is just silly. But it's the kind of clever silliness - self-satire - that the Brits do well. The Two Ronnies and Monty Python come out of the same tradition.
Still, I suspect it was mostly G&S lovers in the audience Saturday. Once indoctrinated, fans tend to revisit the top three (The Mikado and HMS Pinafore are the other two) every few years. It's like dropping in on an eccentric relative hoping they haven't changed too much.
This production plays it straight, no clever staging or interpretations other than a few lyrics acknowledging failed Liberal leaders and an unscheduled appearance by Queen Victoria. Bard on the Beach's Christopher Gaze directs responsibly, taking his time with the story and wisely allowing the cast's voices and the excellent orchestra to be the stars. And what do you know? Arthur Sullivan turns out to be a composer that might work in a pastiche of varied styles but he can sure write melodies. Even my wife, whom I had to bribe to attend, left the theatre trying to sing "I am a pirate king."
William Gilbert's plot turns on the misfortunes of Frederic, apprenticed to The Pirate King by a slightly deaf maid, Ruth, who thought she was signing him up to be a (ship's) pilot.
Oh well, swashbuckling they may be, but these pirates have a soft spot for orphans and a willingness to kneel to the authority of Queen Victoria. Hardly surprising since they all turn out to be English noblemen who have just "gone wrong." As the Pirate King puts it: "I don't think much of our profession, but, contrasted with respectability, it is comparatively honest."
It's Frederic's 21st birthday and once he attains the age of majority he can become a fully fledged pirate or leave the crew, embrace respectability and hunt them down without mercy because that would be his duty. His pirate mates, of course, are totally understanding of the dilemma he faces.
Not many women at sea, so the only woman Frederic has seen is Ruth - until the daughters of Major-General Stanley come down to the pirate cove to paddle in the sea. Frederic immediately falls in love with Mabel and the pirates are pretty sure they've died and gone to matrimonial heaven until Major-General Stanley arrives and saves his daughters from a fate worse than death by lying - clearly the bigger sin - that he is an orphan and would be all alone without his daughters.
In due course, the pirates discover he lied while Frederic discovers he may have to be a pirate to 1943 (but Mabel vows to wait!). Of course it all plays out to the happiest of endings with a deft plot twist or two I won't reveal in the hopes that at least one other young woman - like the one seated across the aisle from me - will laugh out loud at the denouement.
Roger Honeywell as Frederic is the undoubted star of this production. His tenor soars effortlessly while he walks a wonderful tightrope between foolishness and awareness.
Rachel Fenlon is a pleasingly young Mabel who seemed a little tense on opening night.
I loved her voice when she relaxed but needed the surtitles for her lyrics more than anyone in the cast.
Judith Forst, Vancouver's grande dame of opera, is a perfect Ruth and Aaron St.
Clair Nicholson as the pirate king buckles a great swash but could have used a touch more brio with his baritone.
Gaze himself plays Major-General Stanley and sensibly chooses not to sing with the heavy hitters. His acting talent is more than a fair exchange as Gaze embodies the daft charm of "the very model of a modern major-general." One disappointment, especially given his voicing of the iconic song, was the lack of a traditional speeding-up of the tongue-twisting patter.
The show looks spectacular.
The costumes of Richard St. Clair and Deanna Finnman are gorgeous and Peter Dean Beck's scenery conjures two distinct moods in the first and second act. Unexpectedly, the painted scenery of a Cornish beach seems to nod to Canada's Group of Seven. Costumes and scenery are tied together by Harry Frehner's excellent lighting, that every so often recalls the yellow warmth of the footlights.
If I'm preaching to the converted, Vancouver Opera has produced as solid a Pirates as you are likely to see, and if you are new to G&S and you have read this far, please take a chance. Gilbert and Sullivan may no longer be relevant, but there is great enjoyment - and perhaps value - in debating the notions of duty and morality while chuckling at foolishness.