Yarraville. Largely an industrial area, with whole blocks crisscrossed with rusty railway lines, plenty of wire fencing and factories as far as the eye can see, some of them even with windows still intact. It must be said, it doesn’t feel like going to a night at the opera. But then again, this isn’t traditional opera. This is “Pirates of Penzance”, the classic (not classical) up yours to the opera establishment. More of a musical parody of opera than opera itself. Though still used to fanfare, “Pirates of Penzance” isn’t the kind of thing that took place on a lavish stage, flanked by opera boxes where counts and dukes peered and countesses and duchesses through their tiny binoculars, while phantoms stalked hapless singers from the wings. It made it’s debut on the New York stages, a Gilbert and Sullivan production of 1879, with every intention of being funny. Unfortunately, in spite of its initial success, it is gratingly boring. Not something one would venture as far from the nest as Yarraville to see, but then again, there is something even less conventional than the tiny stage, deck chairs and couches, and open bar just behind the back row happening to this rendition.
Enter BK Opera.
The name stands out as the ingenious company that brought us last year’s “La Traviata”, an intensely powerful, backstreet production that sustained itself on its raw passion and the awesome presence of its performers. Such a spectacle would have blown the walls out of the little venue that stages Pirates. But here, director Kate Millett shows her substantial versatility, and applies boundless imagination to give “Pirates of Penzance” a new, profoundly more engaging life. Re-envisioned as a pseudo-cabaret show for the tiny venue, with subtle rewrites and a total rejig of the wardrobe, props and, significantly, one particular character, Millett’s version earns the moniker “Adults Only”. Mabel is no innocent maiden, but a leather-clad dominatrix. The Pirates in question seem to have got lost on the way to the boylseque stage. But most beautifully, charmingly, inspiringly, Major-General Stanley is traded off, leaving Genevieve, his eldest daughter, to impersonate him, adding more to the deception than just the longevity of his parents.
This also leaves the door open for Beth Paterson to truly shine. She was hypnotic in “La Traviata”, able to snatch attention away from even the mighty Rada Tochalna with her more subtle, truthful performance and the uniquely endearing physicality she brings to her characters. In “Pirates of Penzance”, it not only thus falls upon her to perform the often-parodied but nevertheless difficult “Major General’s Song”, to which she lends a few choice extra words, but to ring her subtlety and idiosyncratic manner to one of four bubble-headed sisters, but in a way that lends truth to Genevieve’s ability to rise to the challenge dropped upon her. Paterson does so and makes it look easy, and with her undeniable gravitas she emerges as a true star of the musical stage.
All of the cast are good here, performing such bombastic material in such intimate confines is both intimidating and vulnerable, and the courage of the cast must be praised. As must the side-stage conducting of James Penn, who along with Millett holds a show together that might, if tipped but a little, descend into ridiculousness.
Review by Max Davine