Saturday, December 31, 2016


James Karas

Toronto Operetta Theatre ends the old year and brings in 2017 with a production of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic, The Pirates of Penzance. TOT, it bears repeating, works under severe limitations in terms of budget and space but it makes up for that in enthusiasm and simple staying power. This Pirates has energy and fun despite some uneven performances.

Operetta is to opera what farce is to serious drama – silly plot but thoroughly enjoyable. But never underestimate the brilliance of Gilbert’s lyrics or Sullivan’s music. Their work is in a class of its own. 
Vania Chan as Mabel and Colin Ainsworth as Frederic. Photo: Emily Ding
The pirates of the title operate from the coast of Cornwall and they are so soft-hearted that will never molest an orphan. And wouldn’t you know it, the entire British merchant navy is recruited from orphanages.

Among these tough pirates we have our hero Frederic, a Pirate Apprentice and, as the subtitle of the work tells us, The Slave of Duty. Tenor Colin Ainsworth has the looks, voice and innocent mien to satisfy the bill. He has seen only one woman so far but he cannot be discharged from his indenture to the pirates until his 21st birthday. But he was born on February 29 and his release will be decidedly delayed. Ainsworth does a fine job in the role but please tie his hair in a ponytail and get rid of the ridiculous pink headband.

Frederic falls in love with Mabel, (soprano Vania Lizbeth Chan), the daughter of Major-General Stanley. The sweetly-voiced Chan was energetic, coquettish, lovable and just delightful. Hers was one of the best performances of the night.

Baritone Janaka Welihinda attacked the role of the Pirate King with considerable panache. He is a young singer but he has the comic verve and vocal equipment to be around for some time to come. Elizabeth Beeler as Ruth, the Pirate Maid-of-all work, is a veteran performer who tells Frederic that she is fair as gold even if time has lined her face and grayed her hair. A real trooper.

The pirates meet Major-General Stanley (baritone Curtis Sullivan) with his daughters and wards and not surprisingly he turns out to be an orphan too. Sullivan gets the most memorable patter song of the operetta, “I am the very model of a modern Major-General.” It is a tough piece to do because it requires a good voice and a highly disciplined tongue. Sullivan was clearly not at his best during the performance that I saw and may well improve.
Some singers sang as if they were marking and you wanted to reach over and turn up their volume Notable in this respect was Adam Norrad as Samuel, Lieutenant to the Pirate King. He stood out because he was the first one we heard. Antony Rodrigues as the Sergeant of Police displayed the same tendency. Turn up the volume.

Conductor Derek Bate and the “orchestra” are squeezed between the stage and the front row, occupying a kind of no man’s land. Squeezed as they are, they manage to produce fine music under less than ideal conditions.

The reason we have operetta productions in Toronto is Guillermo Silva-Marin. He is the General Director of TOT and the stage director, lighting designer and set designer of this production. He adds some humour with references to CSIS and Trump but he is relatively restrained. The directing is vigorous. The set is minimalist with a few props and silhouettes of ship’s ropes, branches and leaves and the sea as required. He and TOT deserve more funding, a better theatre and more productions. Kudos to him for what he is doing.   

Despite some uneven patches, this is an overall fine and fun production well worth seeing.

The Pirates of Penzance by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan opened on December 27 and will be performed six times until January 8, 2017 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  (416) 922-2912.

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