Saturday, July 23, 2022

The Pirates of Penzance – 175 teenagers, 10 days of rehearsal, 4 performances (Grand Opera House Trust Summer Youth Production until 24 July)

The Grand Opera House Trust delivers a swashbuckling summer youth production of The Pirates of Penzance with a cast well north of a hundred cramming onto the stage and aisles to bring Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera to life.

When young apprentice Frederic turns 21, he expects to be able to leave the pirate company he was accidently enrolled in and return to be a landlubber who can fall in love and marry … that is once he’s wiped out his former somewhat lily-livered pirate companions in the first of a number of calls of duty. The plan seems to be going swimmingly when a fine soprano catches his eye from amongst a “bevy of beautiful maidens”, but then her father turns out to be a Major-General and the lad’s leap year birthday unexpectedly extends his pirate service.

The cast and creative team really exploit the sense of comedy that pervades Gilbert and Sullivan’s score and libretto. With so many people to coordinate, the mammoth choreography keeps the stage alive with pockets of detail and clowning about. No one ever looks lost or unsure of what their character should be doing or emoting. A few times during the first act, while you could hear a principal cast member singing, it was hard to spot them against the sea of ensemble faces, a product of costume choices as much as direction.

The principals are all strong performers. Hats off to the pirate trio of Richard Collins (Frederic), Robbie McMinn (the Pirate King) and Tyler Barr (who brings just the right amount of tomfoolery to his role of Samuel). While the sign in the foyer drew attention to Thaii Berry slipping into Edith’s shoes, nothing about her performance would have suggested that an understudy was on stage alongside Caroline McMichael (Kate) and Ellen Taylor (Isabel).

The best entrance of the show was the arrival of the eccentric Major-General with Jackson Allen strutting on stage in his diving flippers and rubber ring. The absurdity suited the 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 lungtastic phrasing: surely one to watch for future light opera productions around Northern Ireland. And Grace Husarz’s treatment of Ruth (the older nurse maid who mistakenly brought Frederic onto the pirate ship and now hopes to escape with him as her husband) develops greatly in the second half when she can set down her basket of washing and become a full-fledged swashbuckling pirate with lots of entertaining side-eye. Another one to watch for comic musical roles.

Down in the orchestra pit, the band (mostly youth) under the direction of Wilson Shields do justice to Arthur Sullivan’s music. While the set, sound and lighting all assisted the story telling, one thing that was largely missing from this Summer Youth Production was a sense of the deeply political undertones of The Pirates of Penzance, lampooning the ineffective police, questioning the aristocracy (“contrasted with respectability, [piracy] is comparatively honest”) and questioning meaninglessness of being a slave to duty. It’s a lot to ask of a youth staging though at least the direction around Ruth’s character pleasingly acknowledged some of the outright sexism in Gilbert’s lyrics.

The breath-taking pinnacle of the performance comes near the end of Act One when the band drop out and the Pirate King uses his sword to conduct the vast ensemble who sing a beautiful a cappella version of Hail, Poetry in four or more part harmony. Wisely, director Tony Finnegan allows the cast to bow out at the end of Act Two with their party piece once more. It’s the moment that demonstrates the breadth of talent on stage, and cements the achievement of 10 days of rehearsal that have led up to the curtain rising in front of paying audiences.

With only four performances, the youth production’s run of the fully-fledged comic opera finishes with a matinee Sunday 24 July. When will you ever see 175 teenagers on, under and back stage involved in a musical production in Belfast again? 

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