Victorian-era Monty Python

Kindhearted pirates, timorous policemen, pretty maidens, star-crossed lovers and a thoroughly modern Major-General.

All these are onstage this week at Wood Street School as the Music, Art, Drama, Dance program (MAD) program presents the Gilbert and Sullivan classic, The Pirates of Penzance.

When director Mary Sloan and musical director Jeff Nordlund picked the comic operetta for MAD’s year-end production, the significance of staging it in 2012 completely escaped them.

“The crazy thing was, we didn’t even realize it was Leap Year when we started doing the play,” Sloan admits.

“All of a sudden, we came to the ‘Paradox Song’, and we’re reading through it, and we all just kind of stopped and went, ‘Wait a minute. That’s like this year.'”

Frederic (Nick Jeffrey, c.) hears from Ruth (Jane Robinson-Boivin) and the Pirate King (Logan Frasher) that he will not be free for years to come PHOTOS: Rick Massie

Perhaps an explanation is in order for those unfamiliar with one of the most popular works by composer Arthur Sullivan and librettist W.S. Gilbert, which debuted in 1879.

The Pirates of Penzance is the story of Frederic (played by Nick Jeffrey), whose hard-of-hearing nursemaid Ruth (Jane Robinson-Boivin), mistakenly indentured him to a group of kind-hearted pirates until his 21st birthday.

Just when he is due to become a free man, Frederic falls in love with Mabel (Shay Burgess), one of the lovely daughters of a certain Major-General Stanley (Shawn Kitchen).

There are complications, of course, such as when the pirates—who have a particular soft spot for orphans—find out the Major-General has deceived them about being an orphan himself.

But in a classic Gilbert and Sullivan babies-switched-at-birth kind of twist, a crisis emerges when we learn that Frederic was born on February 29.

With a birthday only once every four years, and with a highly-developed sense of duty (the play’s subtitle is The Slave of Duty) he won’t be free to marry Mabel until sometime around 1940.

End plot synopsis [hint: it all works out well in the end].

“It’s archaic, it’s beautifully Victorian. It’s crazy, and the characters are big, and they’re ridiculous,” Sloan says.

“There’s that sort of Monty Python quality about it that I think really appeals to kids, and I think it’s really going to appeal to the audience as well.”

Each year, Sloan explains, MAD tries to do something completely different from the previous year. She and Nordlund start by assessing the strengths of each year’s class.

The Sergeant (Kieran Poile) comes to realize a policeman’s lot is not a happy one Credit PHOTOS: Rick Massie

“Last year was a really strong tap-dancing class, which is why we did 42nd Street,” she says.

“This year we took a look at who we had, and we realized we had some pretty darned good singers in the class.”

Sloan admits it is hard to find age-appropriate musicals for teenagers that don’t “cross the line into something you’re going to be uncomfortable doing.”

This is the first MAD has tackled Gilbert and Sullivan, but Sloan says the students are happy with the choice.

“There is such a zest to what they do. There is such energy that starts right at the beginning of that show, with “Pour, oh pour the pirate’s sherry” and just does not let up.”

That’s the song she and Nordlund chose to introduce the students to a style of musical that was unknown to them.

Later, when they screened the 1983 film version, starring Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, Angela Lansbury and Rex Smith, the kids were hooked.

“That really lit the sparks in them,” Sloan says.

“They totally loved it,” Nordlund agrees.

“They loved all the patter songs, and the speed that some of the songs go, so that was catchy, that was appealing,” he adds.

“Then, when you look at the lyrics, they’re actually very witty, and they got on board.”

One of those “patter” songs—perhaps the most famous in Gilbert and Sullivan’s repertoire—is Stanley’s tongue-twisting introductory number, ‘I am the very model of a modern Major-General’.

“I think Shawn (Kitchen) has channelled the Major-General,” Sloan says.

“He loves the part, he loves the character, he loves the words, and he just kind of understands that whole energy that the Major-General has.”

With a cast of 17 Grade 11 and 12 students, the show is “just so much fun,” Sloan says a week before opening night.

“I sit and watch rehearsals. We start, and ‘bang’ it seems like it’s over before we know it. I’m having a great time. I’m loving it.”

The Pirates of Penance plays May 1-5 at 8 p.m., ending with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, May 6.

Ken Bolton is a former What’s Up Yukon co-editor who now calls himself a Yukoner in exile

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