The Grand Opera House Trust offers a summer production for young people of Swashbuckler The Penzance Pirates with a cast well north of a hundred crammed onto the stage and aisles to bring Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera to life.
When the young apprentice Frédéric turns 21, he expects to be able to leave the pirate company in which he was accidentally enrolled and become a landsman again who can fall in love and marry… that is to say a once he has annihilated his former fellow pirates to life. in the first of a number of calls of duty. The plan seems to be going wonderfully when a beautiful soprano catches his eye among a “gang of beautiful young girls”, but then his father turns out to be a major-general and the boy’s leap year birthday extends by unexpectedly its pirate service.
The cast and creative team really harness the sense of comedy that pervades Gilbert and Sullivan’s score and libretto. With so many people to coordinate, the gigantic choreography keeps the scene alive with pockets of detail and clowns. No one ever looks lost or unsure of what their character should do or express. A few times during the first act, when you could hear a lead actor sing, it was hard to spot them against the sea of ensemble faces, a product of the costume choices as much as the direction.
The principals are all good performers. Hats off to the pirate trio of Richard Collins (Frederic), Robbie McMinn (Pirate King) and Tyler Barr (who brings just the right amount of nonsense to his role as Samuel). While the panel in the lobby drew attention to Thaii Berry slipping into Edith’s shoes, nothing about her performance would have suggested that a stunt double was onstage alongside Caroline McMichael (Kate) and Ellen Taylor ( Isabelle).
The best entrance to the show was the arrival of the eccentric Major General with Jackson Allen strutting the stage in his diving flippers and rubber ring. Absurdity suited comic opera. And Allen’s diction and charisma nailed the Major General’s iconic song to the delight of the audience.
Lucia McLaughlin’s soprano voice effortlessly delivers Mabel’s ornamental melodies and lungful phrasing: surely one to watch for future productions of light opera in Northern Ireland. And Grace Husarz’s treatment of Ruth (the older nurse who mistakenly brought Frederic on the pirate ship and now hopes to escape with him as her husband) grows significantly in the second half when she can put her basket down laundry and become a full-fledged sword-and-sword pirate with lots of entertaining side eyes. Another one to watch for comedic musical roles.
In the orchestra pit, the group (mostly young people) under the direction of Wilson Shields does justice to the music of Arthur Sullivan. While the setting, sound, and lighting all helped tell the story, one thing that was largely missing from this summer youth production was a sense of the deeply political undertones of The Penzance Piratesridiculing the ineffectual police, questioning the aristocracy (“in contrast to respectability, [piracy] is relatively honest”) and questioning the absurdity of being a slave to duty. That’s a lot to ask of a young director, though at least the direction around Ruth’s character has pleasantly acknowledged some of the outright sexism in Gilbert’s lyrics.
The breathtaking climax of the performance comes towards the end of the first act when the group gives up and the Pirate King uses his sword to lead the vast ensemble who sing a beautiful a cappella version of Hello, Poetry in harmony with four or more voices. Wisely, director Tony Finnegan allows the cast to retire at the end of act two with their celebratory piece once more. This is the moment that demonstrates the breadth of talent on stage and cements the accomplishment of 10 days of rehearsal that led to the curtain raising in front of the paying audience.
With only four performances, the youth production of the full-fledged comic opera concludes with a matinee on Sunday July 24. When will you ever see 175 teenagers on, under and behind the scenes involved in a musical production in Belfast?
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