The very model of a modern musical
Director Sasha Regan is touring her all-male UK production of The Pirates of Penzance at Sydney Theatre from 8-24 November, 2012.PT2M13S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-28xlj 620 349 November 7, 2012
W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan have been dead for more than a century, yet their fans can match Justin Bieber's for breathless enthusiasm. There are those who find it impossible not to sing along to Sullivan's music and Gilbert's lyrics - even when watching a live performance at an illustrious opera house.
Others take their passion for the pair's operettas still further. Last month the Victorian town of Dunolly held its inaugural Gilbert and Sullivan Festival. School children paraded in costume. The festival's director, Rachel Buckley, is giving a Gilbert and Sullivan makeover to the 150-year-old hotel she bought last year. The rooms will have themed names; the Savoy Ballroom, the Yeoman Suite, Iolanthe.
In the face of such devotion, directors might think twice about tinkering with the duo's work. Yet their comic operas have been adapted time and again in productions that would have startled the original audiences.
Swashbucklers … Nic Gibney, Matthew Gent and Michael Burgen in The Pirates of Penzance. Photo: Jay Cronan
In 1945, a Broadway production, Hollywood Pinafore, transformed We Sail the Ocean Blue into a Tinseltown chorus: ''We are simple movie folk/Of the Wood that's known as Holly.'' A 1992 staging of Princess Ida from the English National Opera turned the story into a satire of the British Royal Family set in a theme park. At the Sydney Theatre this month, The Pirates of Penzance will be performed by an all-male cast.
Director Sasha Regan's production of the 1879 comedy received rave reviews after opening in London in 2009. Despite its camp appearance, Regan says the show was designed to resemble a school production. ''It's not gay,'' she says. ''It's fresh and innocent and lively.''
With the cross-dressing cast members playing it ''absolutely straight'', Regan says most of the audience forgets the show's famous kiss between Frederic and Mabel is actually between two men.
Apart from gender-bending, this production has not tampered with the script or score - a crucial factor in keeping Gilbert and Sullivan fans onside.
There is certainly no shortage of them, with Gilbert and Sullivan societies throughout Australia as well as Savoynet, a worldwide internet forum, dedicated to the duo.
The moderator of Savoynet, Marc Shepherd, says many fans would consider it heresy to put on Pirates with an all-male cast. ''There are others - and I suppose I am in this category - who would be open-minded, but would wonder why you're doing it,'' he says. ''By performing the show without women, something is lost; so what is being gained in return?''
A 15-year-old fan, Darcy Cornwallis, is performing in Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria's production of The Mikado, and says his favourite Pirates was a rock version staring Jon English as the Pirate King. ''When complaining about modern versions, you should always bear in mind that the operas weren't old-fashioned and static when Gilbert wrote them,'' he says. ''They were new, fresh, and contemporary.''
Diana Burleigh, who is directing Cornwallis in The Mikado, also discovered the operas as a teenager. Burleigh says directors must be faithful to the intentions of the author and composer. ''For example, the latest incarnation of Opera Australia's Mikado completely re-wrote the overture and no mention of this was made in the program,'' she says. ''This is completely unacceptable.''
Australia's foremost director of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, Stuart Maunder, says innovative productions are the reason Gilbert and Sullivan's operas survive. ''Like any great work of art, it can take whatever you can throw at it,'' says Maunder, who directed OA's 2011 production of The Mikado.
An all-male cast is hardly new. The president of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Victoria, Ron Pidcock, recalls working as an assistant director on a production of Pirates at his alma mater, Brisbane's Anglican Church Grammar School, in 1966. He also supervised the boys' make-up.
''Let's face it,'' he says, ''it is very difficult to improve on Gilbert's dialogue, and Sullivan's music stands alone. However, that should not prevent any director from attempting innovation.''
The Pirates of Penzance opens at the Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, on November 8.