Sub-Par Steampunk or Second-Tier Disney?: Stratford's Pirates of Penzance

The Stratford Festival has a long history with the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Many remember with great fondness the Festival's seminal production of The Mikado in the eighties, which had several revivals and a Broadway run. The productions of the other operettas that followed were just as handsomely dressed and casted (great Canadian stars such as Brent Carver and Maureen Forrester all had their turns in these productions), if not met with the same critical fervor. In 1961, The Pirates of Penzance had its first non D'Oyly Carte production at the Festival. So I was really excited to see the return of Gilbert and Sullivan to the festival.

I was not the only one; my little brother of seven years was seeing his very first play at the Festival the afternoon we attended, and he loves pirates. Particularly the ones who aren't very good at being dastardly.

Briefly, Pirates of Penzance concerns a young man named Frederic who leaves the pirate crew that he has known all his life to pursue an upright career in the Navy. As soon as he leaves, he falls in love with the beautiful Mabel, daughter of the modern Major-General Stanley. Predictably, several complications arise to keep these two apart, but everything is fated to end well.

One thing I noticed immediately as I came in was how the set was dressed. It made visible all the scaffolding, and the backdrops and sets were done in a Victorian style. Above the proscenium arch was a clock that was all gears and little else. It was steampunk without the punk.

I opened up the programme, and sure enough director Ethan McSweeny, who declares his intention to keep this work ''both entirely familiar and yet fresh at the same time', finds himself inspired by the Steampunk movement. But his understanding of Steampunk is only partially adequate, and I don't think that using an aesthetic that is, in the wrong hands, nostalgia for a bygone era is the correct choice if you want to keep something fresh or modern.

The Steampunk movement is focused on incorporating modern technology and sensibilities to Victorian imagery in a thought-provoking way. Though it is retro, it is supposed to be relevant to the 21rst century society. It's about the present and future, not the past. If one is not thinking about the future and constant what-ifs, one loses the spirit of steampunk. It's making a leather corset with cogs on it, and not taking into account how modern feminism subverts the intention and use of a Victorian corset. It's using that turn of the century japonisme that was so characteristic of Victorians and not thinking too hard about how neo-colonialist that may be in a modern setting. It romanticizes industrialism and imperialism in a very superficial and tacky way.

That said, I can see how Gilbert and Sullivan operettas may lend themselves to the Steampunk aesthetic; these pieces are extremely satirical of the time that they come from, and hold up so well because most of what they say still rings true in our society.

Amy Wallis and Kyle Blair are both very sweet as Mabel and Frederic. Ms Wallis has a very serviceable voice, but I found she was slightly breathy during the higher passages. That said, she is a vision in her poufy pink dress and fascinator. Mr Blair is very earnest, a credit in a G+S romantic lead, and has a very strong voice.

Sean Arbuckle is an effete and quiet Pirate King. This works on some level, but I'm used to Brent Carver's dramatics from the DVD of the 80s production, so I was slightly underwhelmed.

C. David Johnson as that famous modern Major-General is a bit of a disappointment. He is the only one who feels miscast in this production. There was a superfluous addition to his patter song where they outlined the last sixty years of Stratford history. Considering everything else in this show is totally Victorian, this seemed very out of place and self-congratulatory.

That said, I found myself enjoying my afternoon in the Avon Theatre.

There were a couple of touches I really enjoyed; Major-General Stanley's daughters were all done up in adventuring khakis, bringing to mind the design for Jane in the Disney Tarzan movie. At one point a character shows up in a Victorian-era diving suit that reminded me of Treasure Planet or Atlantis. In fact, at the end of the second-act I found myself feeling the nostalgia that I associate with the second-tier Disney 90s movies that all have the same colour palette and fascination with Victoriana, regardless of context. And so now I fervently wish that Disney would just make Gilbert and Sullivan movies, and take a leaf out of Stratford's book while doing so.

I know there was one little kid in the audience who loved this show as much as he loves watching old Disney VHS tapes. My little brother had a grand time watching those bumbling pirates and adored the music.

The Pirates of Penzance does not subvert any expectations, nor does it do a very good job of being a satire. It is at heart a hyperactive and lavish piece of family entertainment, along the lines of the Guy Ritchie 'Sherlock Holmes' movies or The Great Mouse Detective. Well-acted, choreographed and sung, it nonetheless lacks the intelligent spark that would make this production soar.

The Pirates of Penzance runs at the Avon Theatre until October 27. For more information about the operetta and ticket availability, go here.

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