In a week where we lost Australia’s original Pirate King, Jon English, Waterdale have opened their 2016 season with Essgee’s The Pirates of Penzance. The modern retelling of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic show follows 21 year-old Frederic as he is released from his apprenticeship with a band of tenderhearted pirates, and meets Mabel, with whom he falls in love. With a more modern sound, a new show structure and the clever use of current day jokes in the Essgee version, Waterdale have put on an overall enjoyable show.
The Pirates of Penzance is a show very close to my own heart – it’s the first show I remember my grandmother showing me on VHS, and the first show I was taken to see live many moons ago when I was very small. My grandmother was the wild one heckling the boys for encore after encore of ‘With Cat Like Tread’; she’s the one who gave me my love of musical theatre. It’s also the first show I technically directed in high school, and I’m a huge fan of the Gilbert and Sulvan version.
The production team of Andrew McDougall (Director), Bec Muratore and Shelley Dunlop (Co-Musical Directors) and Louisa D’Ortenzio (Choreographer) have assembled a strong cast of performers. The show opens with the sassy and energetic band of pirates and their gruff and clumsy Pirate King, Sam Marzden, and while some of their humour is lost without the microphones, the pirate band are a huge highlight of the show. Special mentions go to Sabrina Surace as Mabel, a phenomenal voice with great chemistry with Nathan Wright, whose voice and moves as Frederic are unforgettable. Kirsty Nisbet’s Ruth is darling, as the older but still full of love hand maiden, and the three Fabulous Singlettes, Jessica Cannuli, Narada Edgar and Demi Mangione as Kate, Edith and Isabelle, have a gorgeous threesome complete with lovely harmonies and witty retorts.
The Rivergum Theatre at Parade College can be a hard one to manage sound wise, and while the performers have amazing voices, it’s a hard balance between too little and too much. There was not much balance between show-stopper Surace’s soaring soprano as Mabel (which sometimes became shrill and hard to handle in the small space), and the seeming lack of chorus sopranos, as the drop mics on the stage struggled to pick up their harmonies over the altos. That said, the numbers featuring the whole cast, especially the ones sung a capella, are flawless and absolutely breathtaking. It’s a little sad this isn’t more consistent across the show, and that there’s not enough brightness and grit or twang to the soprano voices. It’s a pity that vocally the pirates outshone the maidens in most songs, but both groups shone in the choreography. All performers were well rehearsed in the choreography, but a little out of breath with the combination of high intensity moves and the singing.
The set was simple and easy for the cast to manoeuvre around, with a few key pieces to change the set in the act break, leaving the cast to be relied on to set the scene. The simplicity of the set allowed for the elegant costumes to shine. Coordinated by Dee McDougall, the classic dresses of the sisters were flattering pieces from the 1800s, and they were a stand out, carefully customised to each individual girl. Paired with a few authentic fencing swords and some simple but effective costume changes, the cast looked both comfortable, and well outfitted.
Choreography by D’Ortenzio included some fantastically coordinated sword fights, authentic falls from the pirate band, and some darling but messy footwork by the maidens. Paired with lighting designed by Shong Lim, the cast lit up the stage with their smiles and complete dedication to character (even when the audience could clearly see them through the side stage curtains – what a well behaved cast!). Even during the six minute straight danceathon that is the megamix at the end, which seems both fun and cruel to push an already tired cast through some serious cardio, the cast had a ball on stage. They would do well to either commit to their accents or drop them, as regularly throughout the night the accents changed or were forgotten all together – even when making jokes and breaking the fourth wall by referring to the audience and the show, it would be better to not switch between accent and no accent so much.
The highlight of the show was clearly “With Cat Like Tread”, with the audience getting on board with the multiple encores, and exhausting but bold and brilliant nature of the song. A powerful wall of sound hit the theatre, filled with energy, precise dance moves and some fantastic use of stomping to create percussion and pace throughout the song.
Travel over rocky mountains with cat like tread to Parade College for this bright and bubbly show, which plays until 19 March. Tickets at www.waterdale.org.au/pirates