Review: ‘Pirates of Penzance’ at H-B Woodlawn by Jessica Cruz

After its debut in 1879, The Pirates of Penzance has been produced and performed many times and was even made into a movie in 1983. A combination of W.S. Gilbert’s libretto and Arthur Sullivan’s music provides satisfying entertainment for the audience. This past weekend the students at H-B Woodlawn recreated the comic operetta, directed and musical directed by Bill Podolski, and choreographed by Elena Velasco. Tom Mallan was the technical director and acting coach.

 Cast of 'The Pirates of Penzance.' Photo by George Laumann.
Cast members of ‘The Pirates of Penzance.’ Photo by George Laumann.

The Pirates of Penzance is the story of Frederic (Will Granger), a man who has worked on a boat since he was eight years old. When he turns twenty one and completes his apprenticeship, he decides he no longer wishes to remain on the boat; however, he feels a sense of loyalty to the pirates and he is meant to marry his elder nanny, Ruth (Vanessa Powers). Frederic has not seen another woman except for Ruth in all the time that he spent on the boat and he soon discovers that Ruth is not as beautiful as she made him think she was. Once on land, Frederic meets Mabel (McKinley Dyer), Major-General Stanley’s (a great performance by Nathaniel Stern) daughter, and immediately falls in love with her. He is ready to marry Mabel, but the pirates bring to his attention that his contract with them is not over until his twenty first birthday which had not occurred yet due to the fact that he was born on February 29th.

The rest of the operetta unravels more conflict when the pirates want to marry all of Major-General Stanley’s daughters, but the Major claims that if the pirates take his daughters then he would be left an orphan. The pirates, who should be harsh, are very paradoxical and because of this they feel sympathy for Major-General Stanley and do not take his daughters. In Act 2, the audience watches as Frederic makes his way back to the pirates and reveals the Major’s secret: he is not an orphan. The pirates prepare to get revenge for being deceived, but in the end all conflict is resolved.

It was refreshing to see such an engaged, dedicated, young cast. At any given point in time, every single member of the cast that was on stage was singing the songs proudly and passionately. Elena Velasco’s choreography was extremely vivid and expressive from the start to the end of the operetta. The constant movement between each scene and each character enhanced the connections that the audience should have made throughout the show. The entire cast demonstrated extensive knowledge on their choreography.

The ensemble contributed greatly to the success of the production. All the musicians were perfectly in sync with the singing and they made Sullivan’s music appear as beautiful as it was meant to be. The amount of effort that was put into this production was easily determined by the manner in which the ensemble and the cast connected.

There were many notable performances, including that of Will Granger who played Frederic. Granger’s performance was remarkable because of how consistent he was during the whole show. It seemed as if he had to sing an endless number of songs, but each one was performed with the same amount of boldness. When on stage, Granger was very confident and comfortable seemed to feel comfortable, and he possessed one of the best voices in the cast.

McKinley Dyer’s portrayal of Mabel was exceptional as well and this was showcased through her aria “Sorry Her Lot.” Dyer managed to emphasize her character’s distress as she watched Frederic leave her. Immediately after her performance of “Sorry Her Lot,” Dyer performed “No, I Am Brave!” which expresses a completely different emotion than the previous change. This abrupt change in emotion allowed the audience to observe the versatility of Dyer’s acting.

Another memorable cast member was Santiago Mallan who played the role of the Pirate King. Despite the intensity of the choreography of “Oh, Better Far to Live and Die,” Mallan still managed to maintain his voice. He provided a good leader for the rest of the pirates in the cast.

McKinley Dyer (Mabel) and (Frederic). Photo by George Laumann.
McKinley Dyer (Mabel) and (Frederic). Photo by George Laumann.

The performance of “Oh, False One, You Have Deceived Me” by Will Granger and Vanessa Powers showed how well the two actors worked together to make the duet comedic and interesting. Their voices complimented each other well. 

The cops in the operetta did a fine job as well and were very funny. Luke Bultena, who played the Sergeant, had an unforgettable voice and a great sense of humor that brightened up the stage. His voice was strong and loud, which made him great for the role of a sergeant.

The cops. Photo by George Laumann.
The cops. Photo by George Laumann.

Costume Designer Latia Stokes did an extraordinary job in dressing the cast. From minor details, like Frederic’s boots, to major details, like the Daughters’ dresses, everything fit in entirely. I noticed many things that I particularly enjoyed in the costumes. For instance, all of the Daughters were in Mary Janes and in pastel colored dresses, which emphasizes the purity and daintiness of the girls. The pirate costumes were very colorful and exactly what you would imagine a pirate to be wearing. A few of the pirates were even seen wearing fake earrings in order to assert the fierce image of a pirate.

Props play a big role in any show and I was thoroughly impressed with this show’s props. All of the props looked very realistic, but animated at the same time and this created an interesting effect. There was excellent lighting by Stephen Shetler, and at some point a combination of fog and lights was used during a scene, which left the audience surprised. There were, however, a few microphone problems. Since the operetta was set in England, the actors, naturally, tried to use British accents, which, unfortunately, at times, hindered their diction.

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On the whole, The Pirates of Penzance was a very solid production and it was extremely enjoyable.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

The Pirates of Penzance played from February 4-7, 2016 at H.B. Woodlawn – 4100 Vacation Lane, in Arlington, Virginia. For future productions, check their Theatre Arts page.