Little Theatre, Library Bldg, 2 Queens Drive, Lower Hutt

12/05/2023 - 12/05/2023

Te Raukura ki Kāpiti Theatre, Coastlands, 32 Raumati Rd, Raumati

13/05/2023 - 13/05/2023

Globe Theatre, 312 Main St, Palmerston North

14/05/2023 - 14/05/2023

Little Theatre, Library Bldg, 2 Queens Drive, Lower Hutt

17/05/2023 - 17/05/2023

Memorial Theatre, Victoria University, Wellington

19/05/2023 - 19/05/2023

Whirinaki Whare Taonga, 836 Fergusson Drive, Upper Hutt

20/05/2023 - 21/05/2023

Production Details

Words by W.S. Gilbert, music by Sir Arthur Sullivan
Director: Alison Hodge
Musical Director: Michael Vinten
Pianist: Robyn Jaquiery

Wellington Comic Opera

Under director Alison Hodge and musical director Michael Vinten this production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s classic The Pirates of Penzance shifts from the Edwardian era to the mid-twentieth century, and from the grand operetta tradition to a compact and colourful 90 minutes of wit and sparkle. The story is a light-hearted adventure filled with swagger and charm, armed to the teeth with breath-taking word play, and laden with tongue-twisting treasures. The central themes of courage, duty and honour are equally lampooned and championed.

Starting with a day at the beach corporate pirates cross swords with spirited young women accompanied by their guardian Major General Stanley, and, rather more successfully, with a troupe of baffled policemen. Love and romance as well as wit is in the air, together with tortuous legal wrangling and sparkling music.

Wellington Comic Opera (WCO) is a 2021 rebrand of the long-established Wellington Gilbert & Sullivan Society, which has brought light opera to audiences in Wellington and the lower North Island for the past 68 years. WCO brings refreshed immediacy and a New Zealand flavour to the treasure house of the comic opera repertoire.

The creative team

Free-lance director, teacher and performer Alison Hodge has worked in theatre, opera and musical theatre, and directed plays from Shakespeare to contemporary NZ theatre. She was the stage director for Pocket Opera from 1995 to 2000, and worked with Boutique Opera on King ArthurDido and Aeneas and Tom Jones. She has directed productions for the Young and Hungry theatre festival and Summer Shakespeare. Her work includes Opera Undressed (Pocket Opera), 120 Days of Sodom (STAB season, BATS Theatre), Room 101, and Transatlantic (Boutique Opera).

Composer and Musical Director Michael Vinten has been the Wellington Chorus Master and Associate Conductor for New Zealand Opera since 1991 and has conducted for Wellington City Opera, Hamilton Operatic Society, Hawke’s Bay Opera, Wanganui Opera, and Massey University’s Conservatorium of Music, the New Zealand School of Music, Boutique Opera and Days Bay Opera. In 2022 he was Master of Ceremonies in NZ Opera’s production of works from his three-volume edited collection of NZ Art Songs – Call of the Huia, The Golden Kowhai, Song of the Tui.

This is the same team who with pianist Robyn Jaquiery created the music and comedy feast of “TRIAL BY JURY an Operatic Vision by Cynthia Fortitude” in 2020.

Lower Hutt Little Theatre, Friday 12 May at 7.30pm
Te Raukura, Raumati Beach, Kapiti, Saturday 13 May at 2.00pm
Globe Theatre, Palmerston North, Sunday 14 May at 2.00pm
Lower Hutt Little Theatre, Wednesday, 17 May at 7.30pm
Victoria University Memorial Theatre, Wellington, Friday 19 May at 7.30pm
Gillies Group Theatre, Whirinaki, Upper Hutt, Saturday 20 May at 7.30pm, Sunday 21 May at 2.00pm

$35 adult, $30 senior/student, $10 children, plus booking fee

Bookings through https://wellingtoncomicopera.nz/ (Eventfinda, Patronbase, or iTicket)

photographs by Marjorie McKee

On Stage (in order of appearance)
Frederic ………………………………………………… Peter Liley
The Pirate King ………………………………………… William McElwee
Samuel (his Lieutenant) ……….………………………. Brent Alcock
Ruth (Frederic’s nursemaid) ..…………………………. Shirley Kauter
Edith (eldest of the Major-General’s daughters) ……. Sinéad Keane
Kate (another of the Major-General’s daughters) .......Jasmine Jessen
Mabel (another of the Major-General’s daughters)….........Matilda Wickbom
Major-General Stanley …………………………………. David Cox
Sergeant of Police …….…………………………………Richard Dean

Pirates/Police: Josh Long, Kwok Yi Lee, Ian Graham, Steve Hendry, Yang Liu.
Major-General Stanley’s other daughters: Regan Gardner, Veronica Huntington, Melody Holmes, Rosie Knight, Margaret Mabbett, Antonia Selby, Kassandra Wang.

Behind the Scenes:
Production Manager: Ian Graham
Stage Manager: Alastair Gustafson
Assistant SM: Lindsay Groves
Costumier: Anna Stuart
Properties: Ian Graham
Front of House: Sheryl Dean

Publicity: Ian Graham, Chris Whelan
Graphic design & publicity photographs: mckee of LAKEMANagement
Programme: Ian Graham and Marjorie McKee
Business Manager: Wayne Wedderspoon
Venues Coordinator: Margaret Mabbett
Grants Coordinator: Richard Dean

Acknowledgements: Rieger's Print and Copy; Phantom Billstickers; Gerry Keating; Sonia Hardie; Peter Willis; Garth Wilshere; Celia & Jean Hulbert; Lynne Strode-Penny; Wellington Opera; Peter Benner

Comic Opera , Theatre ,

90 minutes

Spiffingly good fun, genuinely rollicking, tuneful and a super intelligent update

Review by Dave Smith 13th May 2023

When I was younger (so much younger than today) I was a certifiable Gilbert & Sullivan nut. When the D’Oyly Carte touring opera company came to Manchester each year they stayed for many weeks. Runts like me could watch the entire G&S calendar by standing, for mere pennies, up in the Gods – where you could hear everything and see practically nothing.

I have not seen a G&S offering these last 60 years. I therefore must admit to some pre-match trepidation. This show is a much-updated version of The Pirates of Penzance, the only one of the G&S brand written in the USA. It had its premiere there on the last day of 1879. The excellent photo on the cover of the programme summarizes its 2023 NZ manifestation beautifully: two city gents in conservative suits with bowlers and umbrella stand on a flat local beach. They dominate the foreground. Behind them are bunch of happy Kiwi sheilas wrapped in beach towels having a right old ribbing session.

So, gone are the bonnets, homogenous dresses and massive hats replete with skull and crossbones. The beach is more like Newquay’s in Cornwall. No caves and craggy rocks. When we arrive in our seats the pirates are all lounging around in deck-chairs looking like a bunch of full-suited and knotted-hanky-on-bonce merchant bankers hooning around on a bank holiday. And that is just what Director Alison Hodge and Costumier Anna Stuart want us to see them as. (Forget about the beach grand piano off to the left, by the way).

These are not the cat ‘o nine tails, cutlass-toting and ‘hang him from the yardarm’ mob (that’s the Royal Navy). No, these blokes are the pirate captains of British industry (Pen-pusher Division). They’re looking for companies to take over and rort rather than galleons to board and plunder. They are celebrating the fact that their junior staff member Frederic is now out of his indentures and is a fully-fledged pirate. They hand him a money dealer’s green visor to emphasize his new status and he is now set up for a long and lucrative career in embezzlement.

At this point I must switch the scene to the nineteenth century. It says in the programme that the original piece was set in the Edwardian era. In fact, it was in the mid Victorian one – just before Jack the Ripper and slightly after the Indian mutiny. Policemen were still relatively new and were armed only with a short piece of wood, a pretend hat and a whistle. (In those idyllic days you could show up at a police station covered in blood and be let go if you could give an address!)

The initial novelty and wow factor of G&S stuff was that while Britain was ruthlessly ruling its colonies, its authority icons were all figures of reasonable and self-deprecating fun.  The country could put natives over a gun barrel in India but still poke fun at the Police, the House of Lords, aesthetes, Ministers and the military of all stripes back home. Just as long as their good intentions were ultimately upheld and they were portrayed as honest men trying to do an honest job, if in an outrageously satirical manner. 

The dateline has now been moved forwards 75 years. So now the historical Queen is the late Elizabeth II. The Army is still as mad, the cops are still as venal and nervy and pirates still want to get forcibly married en masse to virginal young women (as you do).  

There are but two simple-but-crazy strands to the plot. Frederic wants out of the pirate caravanserai and into Mabel, one of a bevvy of lovely maidens (“Wards in Chancery”), all of whom are daughters of Major General Stanley and just happen to be on the beach. The pirates cunningly keep their lovely lad in tow using a legal technicality. So plucky daughter Mabel offers Frederic her love and support in opposition to all others. The bumbling local police get involved. Queen Elizabeth II gets pulled in the argument. Beyond that my lips are sealed.

The whole thing starts to look a bit like the Monty Python boys having a go at Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Hang on to that image.

Loopy though that plot is, it serves a as serviceable coat hanger to Sullivan’s first real outing as a composer while using these new Gilbertian themes. And his music is absolutely stonking good. A few too many patter songs (limited to one a show after this one) but some enormously evocative melodies, clever choral counterpoints, aching duets, diva soprano spots plus quartets that that deliciously push the story along.  The score is a massive leap up from the rather lumpy H M S Pinafore. This revised production does it some real justice.

I’ve always thought that a Pirates production will always succeed as long as Frederic is tunefully credible and Mabel can sing a bit. Peter Liley’s Fred is just tops. He gamely holds the wacky story together and sings splendidly alongside Matilda Wickbom. It is so very touching when our man (who is addicted to servility) pleads to the Stanley girls to provide him with his first young lady in life:

“Oh is there no one maiden breast that does not feel the moral beauty of making worldly interest subordinate to sense of duty?”

Alone, Mabel steps into the action from atop a well-placed esky to announce that she will – no references needed. Success!

Ms Wickbom is no shrinking violet. Though her character is basically well-bred and altruistic, her durable diva-like voice has the brassy edge and carry of a young Ethel Merman. Her “Poor wandering one” is very fine and is hauntingly backed up by the other ladies (who are all kitted out in their colorful individual costume styles but maintain a coherent troupe as they roam the stage).

All the leads in this show are spot-on and the chorus members all sing strongly but consciously in character and never overbearingly. I congratulate Michael Vinten for casting the voices so very well.

Space here does not allow me to do them all the justice they deserve. I am hugely taken with William McElwee (the king of the pirates) and has offsider Brent Allcock (as Samuel). They have a strange assignment as pirates in the ordinary sense. They have to bully Frederic and keep him caged in their band, while suffering near business couples because their real alter egos are orphans who cannot bear to take advantage of other orphans. A fatal flaw in a pirate. All their ‘clients’ claim to be parentless. 

Taking advantage of this flaw is Major-General Stanley who unsettles them with a gross aristocratic porky that does the job but comes back to haunt him (clue: he claims to be an orphan when he’s not).

Instead of the traditional red coat and gaudy hat plume of the standard MG, this one (played extra well by David Cox) is of the Major Bloodnok school of military twerping. Pith helmeted, scruffy bearded, rows of medals and unbelievably long khaki shorts, he defends his multiple daughters’ honour with the highly unusual tactic of blatant dishonour. He is, after all, the very model of a modern Major-General.

Helping to keep Frederic in the pirate cage is Ruth, played brilliantly by Shirley Kauter. This part was played so often in the past by actors effecting a somewhat butch pose with waved flintlocks. Ms Kauter is way more subtle than that. Ruth is important in the piece as she is the ‘hard of hearing’ nanny who was sent to have Frederic signed up for a career in piloting ships. She misheard and the rest you know.

The Kauter version of Ruth is motherly and kind with a spine of steel if you cross. Then she will patiently explain your errors before filleting you. She wears a house coat and one might suppose that she parks a tea trolley in the wings. Along with the two top pirates, she lovingly explores in tuneful song the paradox that had undone Frederic. His indenture period is expressed in birthdays not years and he was born on leap year so he’s only five not 21 – see you in 1980. (Thanks WSG, you may go now.)

That’s when the Cornish cops arrive led by Richard Dean (who bears a lovely and appropriate resemblance to Spike Milligan). Massively undermined by the ladies in the rousing chorus – “When the foeman bares his steel” – and by themselves in “When a felon’s not engaged in his employment” (a G&S masterpiece) the four policemen take on the pirates in mid-journal entry.  It’s an uneven struggle resolved only by the Sergeant effecting an arrest in the Queen Elizabeth’s name. The good-natured thugs “Yield at once with humble mien. Because, with all our faults we love our Queen”. What could be more satisfactory in G&S land?

This is spiffingly good fun. It is genuinely rollicking. It is tuneful and it is super intelligent (though you wouldn’t want to call it in evidence). I love every minute of it. There is no big clunky set; rather we have the piano and nimbly carried potted plants that, with the nicely-placed esky, enable both movement and storyline to hum along. At one point I’m sure I see a pirate emerge from within the piano. SM Alastair Gustafson, ASM Lindsay Groves, with Ian Graham as production manager, have done it right. I’m not sure whose script idea Pirates was but the Director and the MD have a very fine show on their hands. There are many staging complexities involved in Pirates and none are evident out-front.  

And special thanks to pianist Robyn Jaquiery. She stands in for a full orchestra and performs extremely well. I know from personal experience this exceptionally diverse stuff is murder to play well on the piano. When it’s done well, as here, a keyboard can deliver great unifying vibes throughout the whole cast. Some of the big chorus numbers wobble a bit but Ms Jaquiery has their back. Nice job everybody.     

photographer Marjorie McKee


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