TOT's Pirates of Penzance: "A glorious thing" Curtis Sullivan as Major-General Stanley, and Female Chorus in TOT's The Pirates of Penzance. Photo: Emily Ding

TOT's Pirates of Penzance: "A glorious thing"

Greg Finney

My first outing of 2017 was to head over to my home away from home, the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, and check out the latest offering from Toronto Operetta Theatre - Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, directed by TOT’s General Director, Guillermo Silva-Marin and Music Directed by Maestro Derek Bate. TOT was the first company in the classical sphere to hire me and give me my start here in Toronto, so they have a special place with me.

Pirates, a perennial favourite worldwide, was G&S’s follow-up to their wildly successful HMS Pinafore a year earlier. Pinafore was such a success that it was “pirated” by audience members and taken to New York City before the team could arrange their own New York premiere. In order to capitalize on this popularity in the Americas, they decided that Pirates of Penzance would actually premiere in New York in 1879 - and it’s been performed regularly ever since.

It tells the story of a young man, Frederic, who was born on a leap-year, who as an orphan was mistakenly apprenticed to the Pirate King (instead of pilot thanks to the hearing impairment of Ruth.) He’s now reached his 21st year and is released from his apprenticeship to the Pirate King. Shortly thereafter he meets Mabel, ward of Major General Stanley, and they fall in love. The Pirate King and Ruth then return to point out the minor technicality that the contract was on his 21st Birthday, not his 21st year, and thus far he’s only seen five February 29ths. #HijinxEnsue.

Vania Chan (Mabel) and Colin Ainsworth (Frederic) in TOT’s The Pirate King. Photo by Emily Ding.

Colin Ainsworth steps out as the hapless, handsome, if somewhat dim-witted Frederic. His bright face matched his clear, sailing tone throughout the house. His protrayal of Frederic’s dim-wittedness was presented less as a sheer stupidity or unintelligence and more as absent-minded thoughtlessness which I thought was a strong choice. His chemistry with Mabel and Ruth was tangible through the whole show.

As the ward of the Major General, Mabel, Vania Chan is a revelation. Perfectly suited for operetta, and in my mind Gilbert & Sullivan specifically, she was a beautifully sung and fully-fleshed character in front of our eyes. Her comedic skill was one of the strongest on stage. Her bright ringing coluratura during “Poor Wand’ring One” brought the house down.

One of Toronto’s best-loved performers, Elizabeth Beeler brought us a most hilarious Ruth - the Pirate Nurse. Her skill and mastery on the stage was visible in every step she took and every word/note she uttered. I loved the slight brashness in her tone that she would alternate with a delicate, feminine colouring that twinkled over the small orchestra. I loved how intensely physical she was in this role. I love seeing a singer with a great instrument, and great skill, use their entire physicality on stage - she was a delight from start to finish.

As Major General Stanley, TOT welcomed Curtis Sullivan back to their stage. His graceful figure cut through the cast beautifully and carried himself with all the nobility you could hope for in a Victorian man of station. His clean, even baritone was a perfect fit for the Major General and his clean focused line brought us a memorable “Modern Major General” - complete with a new additional verse (as is tradition) reflecting the politics of the day. This time around it was the president-elect of the United States.

As the Pirate King, young baritone Janaka Welihinda was also incredibly funny. His singing was clean, bright, and present. I quite enjoyed his swagger and bright smile - it made it very easy to understand why all these young orphans would totally surrender their freedom to serve on his ship.

Elizabeth Beeler as Ruth in TOT’s The Pirates of Penzance. Photo by Emily Ding.

In the supporting roles, Edward Larocque as Samuel was charming and cheerful, Eugenia Dermentzis as Edith sang beautifully and alongside Meagan Larios as Kate, the two ladies brought some of the most solid comedy of the night. AS the Seargant of Police, Anthony Rodrigues showed some great promise for future work in the genre.

The 11-piece orchestra played the score beautifully under Mr. Bate’s nuanced baton and balanced the singers well, which is tough in the absence of a proper orchestra pit. The chorus sang well and clean and particularly shone during the “Hail, Poetry” chorale in Act I.

The cast was one of the best you could hope for in this Savoyard’s hilarious romp and I thoroughly enjoyed this production. A new take on a simple sets coupled with gorgeous costuming as well as some pretty new and nifty lighting choices. It’s not hard to see why they’ve sold a whopping 90% of their total houses.

This production closes January 8. Tickets are pretty much sold out but if you can snag one, I highly recommend going. Toronto Operetta Theatre is the only company in Canada that specializes in operetta repertoire; there are lots of gems in the canon, like The Chocolate Soldier, which TOT presents in April.

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