Review: 'Pirates of Penzance' at the Hole in the Wall Theater

Sophia Dee

  • OnStage Connecticut Critic

I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am to be writing this review. Over the weekend, my friend and I went to go see “Pirates of Penzance” at Hole in the Wall Theater in New Britain. HITW is one of my favorite places because it’s such the unique space. A director has to bring a strong creative vision to make a show work in what is essentially an “L” shaped theater. When I heard that they were doing “Pirates of Penzance,” an operetta, I had to go opening weekend. My thoughts were “what are they thinking doing such a grand show in a tiny black box? ”  To call the endeavor “ambitious” is an understatement. Director Emily Trudeau would need to completely re-shape the show to fit the space. She would have to compile a cast of stronger actors and even stronger singers who could also dance. She did just that, and it made for outstanding community theater.

“Pirates of Penzance” is a comedic operetta written by Gilbert & Sullivan in the 1870s. The show got a facelift in the 1980s when Joseph Papp’s staged his Broadway revival which also spawned a movie. Kevin Kline appeared in both, bringing a substantial amount of popularity to the 100 year old show. The operetta centers on Frederic, a young Pirate who was apprenticed to the King at the tender age of 8 years old; completely by accident. His nursery maid, Ruth, was supposed to apprentice him to a ships “pilot”, but being hard of hearing heard “pirate.” To those who do not understand how such words can be confused, remember that the composers were British, thus the words are said with British dictation.  The now 21 year old Fredric is released from his indentures, and devotes his life to exterminating the Pirate clan that he grew up with. Frederic sets off into the world, a free man, looking for an appropriately aged woman to marry. During his adventures he encounters a cast of characters which include; beautiful Mabel, her sisters, deceitful but hilarious Major General Stanley, The Sergeant of Police with his loyal policeman, Ruth, The Pirate King, Samuel and the Pirates. 

Let’s start with the shows lead characters; Frederic and Mabel. Voiced by Peter Bailey and Johanna Regan respectively, Frederic and Mabel have a huge amount of difficult music. Frederic (Bailey) is hardly ever offstage, and is almost always singing. Bailey is a vocal marvel, bringing his tenor brilliance to the role of Frederic.  Johanna Regan is exquisite with her bright coloratura sound. Mabel (Regan) enters with the line “Tis Mabel,” stretched out in a long, difficult, and high cadenza. I would like to point out that she hit every single note on pitch. Her entrance was so impressive that the audience gasped. She is hugely talented and versatile in her performance. Regan played Mabel like a diva from your worst nightmares, which is an amusing modern take on a classic character. The leads were perfectly cast, both in their roles and as an onstage couple. Their voices mesh perfectly.

Susan Thom played Ruth, the nursery maid who desires to marry the boy that she raised. Smith was very funny and had excellent chemistry with both Frederic and the Pirate King. She also possesses a glorious belt voice which was showcased in the flawless duet between her and Frederic “Oh False One.”  Smith is extremely talented and perfect in her role. Hal Chernoff acted perfectly in the role of the Pirate King, he had chemistry with everyone. His interpretation of the character was funny and original.  Chernoff has great comedic abilities and annunciates well. He has excellent stage presence and was always fun to watch. Much like that of Major General, David Schancupp who has an extraordinary ability to project and deliver his lines with style. The Pirate King and Major General were perfectly cast in their roles and are excellent actors. Unfortunately, the two theater veterans had difficulty making their entrances with the music. The show was prerecorded and did not use live musicians. The timing was noticeably off on the Major Generals entrances and to a lesser extent the Pirate Kings as well. Both actors were noticeably distraught after a missed entrance and were occasional off pitch as a result. I will contribute their missteps to opening weekend jitters and hope that moving forward they both can deliver the perfect performance that they are no doubt capable of. 

The principals were well cast and brought serious character to their roles. This is especially true of Kristen Norris who played Kate. Kate is a character with a couple of lines and small solos, but Norris brought Kate to life as a 1870s flirt. Her performance was superb and lively. Erin Campbell was wonderful as the oldest sister Edith, as was Doug McCarthy who played Samuel. Both were funny with great facial expressions. Remy McCoy who had the small but sweet role of Isabel was perfect. She wore pigtail braids with ribbons and sang beautifully. The Sergeant and his Policeman were the “funny ones” in an already hilarious show.  No one brought the comedic timing better than the Police. Lead by the Sergeant Alex Kirtsukas, the trio, which included Stephen Michelsson and Nathan Rumney, brought laughs to the point of tears. Their big dance number “When a Felon’s Not Engaged,” was the most fun number in the show to watch. It was also the best choreographed number in the show. 

Finally, we end by looking at the unsung heroes of any show; the ensemble. In “Pirates of Penzance,” the male ensemble  is composed primarily of, you guessed it, pirates! The Pirates are: Stepehn Michelsson, Nathan Rumney, Stephen Maher, Kathleen McKay Pine, and David Unsworth. "They arrrrrrrr" all a laugh, bringing energy and comedic style to the show. Every pirate appeared to be very into character, especially during “Oh Better Far to Live and Die”. The female ensemble was compromised of General Stanley’s Daughters portrayed by: Angelina DeLorenzo, Lauren Hyne, and Cassandra Pease. They were all  fun to watch with their period costumes and smiling faces. “Climbing over Rocky Mountain” was melodic with great choreography. At times the women’s ensemble was quiet and difficult to hear, but they made up for their lack of volume with their energetic stage presence.  Overall the ensemble was excellent and the show would not have been so enjoyable without contributions from everyone in the small cast.

Director Emily Trudeau put together an outstanding show. Trudeau not only directed “Pirates of Penzance,” but she choreographed the entire show as well. That’s large undertaking for one person, and she did it so well. I didn’t notice until the end of the show that there was a video conductor. I saw The Piratre King, Hal Chernoff , glancing into what I thought was the audience. I then saw that he was looking at a T.V. with what looked like a Pirate conducting. I have never seen a show with a prerecorded conductor. What a wonderful tool that Trudeau provided for her cast. This production of Pirates of Penzance is family friendly so bring the little ones, I highly recommend it.