Society: Witham Amateur Operatic Society
Production: “Pirates of Penzance” – Australian Version
Director & Musical Director: Thomas Duchan
Choreographer: Julie Slater
Venue: Witham Public Hall
Date of Review: Friday, 29th April 2016
Reviewer: Sue Hartwell NODA East District 7 Assistant Representative
I was delighted to be asked to review this Australian version of “Pirates of Penzance” on behalf of my NODA colleague Ann Platten. Having seen several performances of the original G&S operetta over the years, my curiosity was certainly aroused. This production, adapted by EssGee Entertainment in arrangement with Stagescripts Limited, for the sake of G&S purists, has kept all of the story-line and much loved harmonies of the musical numbers intact, but brings an up-to-date freshness to the script and energising feel to the musical. It’s pure pantomime from beginning to end, with a delightful touch of burlesque and some wonderful opportunities for over-the-top characterisations.
Whilst some members of the cast were reprising favourite roles, for others, this was their first production with WAOS and without exception everyone seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Newcomer Thomas Pleasant, reprising the role of Frederic that he had played some ten years ago, had real stage-presence and a strong and true tenor voice, which was matched delightfully by young 19 year-old Jess Edom-Carey as Mabel, confident in her solid performance and reaching those very demanding top notes with apparent ease. As Ruth, Frederic’s former nurse-maid, Anne Wilson, brought a real touch of humour and vitality to the role, a nice contrast to the swash-buckling performance by David Slater as the Pirate King, ably assisted by his side-kick Samuel, played by Michael Mundell-Poole, in his first G & S at Witham, having played many other roles in previous WAOS productions.
And then there were Mabel’s older sisters – the Fabulettes – a bevy of bouncing beauties, who used every ounce of their feminine charms to entice and excite, posturing and performing discordant moves to their various musical numbers, all whilst dressed in Victorian costume – quite hilarious. Well done to Emma Loring as “Chardonnay”; Daisy Greenwood as “Daisy Doo”; Alice Mason as “Evelyn”; Rosie Clarke as “Izzy”; Linda Newman as “Lynda” and Michelle Jesse as “Trish” – you almost stole the show! As their long-suffering father, Tom Whelan also put in a fine performance as the Major-General - his patter song a high-light, particularly with the additional chorus in this adaptation, before the rousing finale to Act 1.
After the rather melancholic opening chorus ‘Oh, Dry the Glistening Tear’ with Mabel and the Fabulettes, set against the atmospheric moonlit backdrop of the ruined chapel, the fun continued in Act 2 with the arrival of the Sergeant of Police, comically played here by Stewart Adkins, with his Norman Wisdom style gait and whirling arms, who took centre stage with his troupe of reluctant policemen for one of the best known chorus’ from the operetta “When a Felon’s Not Engaged in His Employment’, which the audience very much enjoyed. As the high-energy performance neared its end, the finale added a further twist – a megamix – when all the principals had the opportunity to reprise chorus’ from their solos, accompanied by flashing gobo lights and pyrotechnics – a very different and celebratory ending from the original - which Gilbert & Sullivan would have welcomed, I’m sure, in ensuring that their operettas still have a rightful place in 21st century musical theatre.
During rehearsals for this production, WAOS suffered the tragic loss of their dear friend and mentor, Stephen Kenna, who had first joined the society way back in 1976 as a trumpet player in their orchestra. He went on to become one of the celebrated aficionados of G & S operettas, having won countless awards for his productions over many years. All credit to the cast and production team, under the direction of Thomas Duchan, who stepped into the breach during this difficult time, for producing such a high-quality and fun-filled performance. Julie Slater’s experience as choreographer was evident throughout and the sword-fighting scenes were quite convincing.
The costumes were a delightful mix of Victorian and Scottish (particularly the pirates kilts!) The technical team produced some really effective lighting during the numerous scenes and the sound quality was well-balanced, with just a minor glitch during one of Mabel’s scenes when her radio mic appeared to have been switched off. Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment. Thank you WAOS!
Witham Amateur Operatic Society at The Public Hall
There've been some pretty rum Pirates since copyright expired back in the 60s. All-male, Papp on Broadway, The Parson's Pirates[my favourite, from Opera della Luna]. And earlier this month a splendid Steampunk version at Brentwood.
WAOS went for the Australian version, with some modern tweaks, especially in the chorus numbers, some added business and topical asides, plus a lively megamix finale.
All the messing about did little for me. It seemed designed for a different company, a different audience. The “orphan” joke was made even less funny by being interrupted, General Stanley's character was not improved by what the Pirate King called his “flowers out the jacksie” moment. And the Fabulettes [Stanley's daughters] were allowed to upstage Mabel's aria, and encouraged to flirt outrageously with Frederick, in direct contradiction of the libretto.
But a cracking pace and many enjoyable performances produced an entertaining evening of alternative G&S.
Mabel was excellently sung by Jessica Edom-Carey, well matched by the equally youthful Frederick of Thomas Pleasant. Their wonderful Act Two duet is still echoing in my memory. Tom Whelan's staunchly traditional Major-General took his patter song at a brisk pace, well sustained until the lame encore. David Slater made a flamboyant Pirate King in his burgundy trousers; Anne Wilson was a superb Scots Ruth, the piratical maid-of-all work. And Stewart Adkins excelled as the Sergeant of Police – an interpretation which was hilarious both vocally and physically – at the head of his cleverly choreographed coppers. The Foeman number was the best thing in the show.
Fine ensemble work from the pirates too, and from the whole company in the Ode to Poetry, mercifully unimproved. The Fabulettes – a sexy sextet of smokers in beehive hairdos, led by Emma Loring's Chardonnay – enjoyed some nice harmony work.
The design could have been Pixar, with the towering cliffs of books, and the costumes were bright and stylish – lots of butch kilts for the Pirates.
Thomas Duchan directed – he was in the pit, too, playing an unsubtle keyboard reduction. The excellent soloists not always best served by generous decibels from the sound system.
WAODS gave the show their all; a big, bold, irreverent take on a favourite Savoy Opera. But my advice to other societies would be save your money, stick to the original, or be like Brentwood, or Trinity, and steer your own course.
Pirates of Penzance
Witham Amateur Operatic Society
Witham Public Hall
Brash Gilbert and Sullivan for 21st Century
This was Gilbert and Sullivan for the 21st century – a brash irreverent version with topical references, suggestive asides and a doowop chorus.
It is billed as ‘the Australian version’ to make it clear that this is not D’Oyly Carte or Covent Garden.
Instead we get an updated take that gives some of the songs more of a pop feel, notably by the introduction of a female chorus line straight out of 1950s’ New York, a text tweaked at the edges and a Tiller Girls chorus line to finish off with.
All the well-known songs are here (and so, unfortunately, is the somewhat nonsensical plot) as are all the main characters, led by the outstanding youthful pairing of Thomas Pleasant and Jess Edom-Carey, whose strong vocals command the stage.
David Slater is at his swashbuckling best as the Pirate King alongside Michael Mundell-Poole as the able No.2 and Anne Wilson as the demure Ruth.
The production’s two best known numbers are in assured hands. Tom Whelan’s excellent delivery ensures we miss none of the Modern Major General’s fiendishly clever rhymes while Stewart Adkins, in what he describes as his favourite G&S role, is all elasticity and convoluted facial expression as he tells us A Policemen’s Lot Is Not A Happy One.
The maidens’ beehives and references to David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn sit rather awkwardly with the paean to Queen Victoria and the reference to 1940 being some way off in the future but these are small prices to pay for the jaunty and breezy antics and colourful stage presentation that give us the very model of the modern G&S.