by Lynn on June 24, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following two reviews were broadcast Friday, June 22/12 on CIUT FRIDAY MORNING CIUT 89.5 FM. THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE and THE MATCHMAKER.

Rose Palmieri was the host.

1) Good Friday morning. Well after a personally dramatic week for her, Lynn Slotkin, our passionate playgoer and theatre critic is here doing what she does best, talking about the plays she’s seen.

Hi Lynn. So what’s on tap today?

Two plays. Both from the Stratford opening week coincidentally. THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, the Gilbert and Sullivan buoyant musical comedy and THE MATCHMAKER a wonderful play by Thornton Wilder, which is the source material for a little show called Hello Dolly.

2) So a return to Stratford for Gilbert and Sullivan?

Yes. It seems such a perfect fit for Stratford really. The musicals of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are literate, witty and intricate. W.S. Gilbert wrote the libretto and Arthur Sullivan wrote the music. THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE also adds a good dose of ‘silly’ to the mix.

It’s about Frederic who is about to turn 21. He has been an apprentice pirate for many years. And it turns out that was a mistake. His father wanted him to apprentice to a pilot—a person who guided ships into and out of the harbour—but his nursemaid Ruth thought he said pirate. So she got him indentured to a band of pirates.

Ever the dutiful man, Frederic served his time to the pirates and now looked forward to leaving and doing what he wanted, which was to wipe out the band of pirates.

Then there was the sticky business of Frederic being born in a leap year, which happens every four years, and the Pirate King, the head of the pirates, felt that Frederic really wasn’t 21 but much younger.

They are visited by a Model of a Modern Major General and his bevy of daughters, of which one daughter—Mabel, takes a fancy to Frederic and he to her. And they all sing about it rather wittily, often quickly and loudly.

2) How does one take a Gilbert and Sullivan show that was written in 1875 and make it accessible for a contemporary audience?

It’s directed by Ethan McSweeny who has never directed Gilbert and Sullivan before. As he says in his program note—he certainly did not want to keep it stuck in Victorian times. But he wanted to be true to the traditions of the period of the piece. So he set it as a backstage drama of sorts, as a play within a play.

It started backstage as a troupe of actors gets ready to put on a production of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE. Actors warm up. The stage manager tries to keep them from banging into each other and get to their places.

Actors look upstage towards the curtain separating them from their audience and then it goes up and the show starts for us. I like that cleverness. And when the intermission comes then the harried stage manager tries to get every body off the stage etc. so we can all go to the bathroom.

Also, during the show there are references to 19th century stagecraft. Two long boards with crescents carved out of them rare painted blue. Two stage hands move the boards back and forth in opposite directions thus suggesting the waves of the ocean where the pirates patrol.

The stage is full of rigging. Occasionally characters swing from a rope from one side of the stage to the other. I like the exuberance of the production.

2) Is it all swashbuckling?

Well not quite. Although I think the choreography by Marcos Santana is athletic and gymnastic—lots of flipping across the stage thrusting barrels.

The Pirate King is played by a swivel hip thrusting Sean Arbuckle. He plays the Pirate King very fey but also rather rakish—there’s something about a guy who wears eyeliner whether it’s Johnny Depp or Sean Arbuckle—that makes him look strange and attractive in a pirate kind of way.

As Frederic, Kyle Blair has an innocent sweetness and a strong tenor voice. Frederic is easily duped shall we say and Kyle Blair handles it in the gentlest way. As Mabel, Amy Wallace is endearing and pert with a lovely soprano voice—a perfect match for Frederic.

And Gabrielle Jones plays Frederic’s nursemaid Ruth, who has visions of running off with Frederic…wishful thinking. As the model of a modern Major General, C. David Johnson is dashing, and almost battled to the ground, the tongue-twisting song, “I am the very model of a modern major general” with a few glitches on opening night that I trust will be fixed with doing the show.

3) And now for THE MATCHMAKER. Isn’t there a particular connection to Stratford for this play?

Yes. Thornton Wilder had a flop of a play in THE MERCHANT OF YONKERS—a rare flop it seems since he won Pulitzer prizes for his work—OUR TOWN for example.

He was invited to come to Stratford in the early 1950s by the first artistic director, Tyrone Guthrie, to work on THE MERCHANT OF YONKERS and the result was THE MATCHMAKER. It became a huge Broadway hit in 1955.

It was adapted as a musical by Michael Stewart—who also did the book for 42nd Street–called HELLO DOLLY with music by Jerry Herman.

So who is the matchmaker?

She is Dolly Gallagher Levi. She has been employed by Horace Vandergelder, a rich merchant in Yonkers, New York to find him a bride.

He actually wants to marry a woman who will take care of his house etc. Another name for this is housekeeper but of course he doesn’t want to pay. Dolly has planned that Horace will meet a woman in New York for a check-out date. But she has ulterior plans of her own.

In the meantime, Horace’s two shop clerks, Cornelius and Barnaby leave the store for New York to seek adventure. They all manage to find themselves in the same restaurant.

Horace loses his wallet with a lot of money in it. Cornelius, who is poor, finds it. He also finds love as does Barnabus.

Wilder’s play is charming, full of characters in humdrum ruts who want adventure and find it. They are yearning to break out of their ordinary lives. The writing is poetic, lyrical and there are phrases in the dialogue that just remind you of songs in because Michael Stewart used that dialoguHELLO DOLLYe in the book of the musical.

But THE MATCHMAKER is the source material and it’s heart-squeezing.

4) How about the production?

It’s directed by Chris Abraham. He is a hugely gifted director. He’s done experimental work with his own theatre Company called Crows.

He directed a wonderful production of FOR THE PLEASURE OF SEEING HER AGAIN last year at Stratford.

But his work on THE MATCHMAKER is a revelation. He has a keen sense of humour, getting every single joke and laugh out of situations and characters. Every actor seems to step up to the plate with a surprising invention.

As Horace, Tom McCamus is all bluster (perhaps too blustery at times), swagger, arrogance and an endearing bumbling. Dolly is the Matchmaker, but Horace is no match for her when she sets her sights on something.

Seana McKenna ads Dolly Levi to her list of beautifully drawn characters. Dolly is understated but focused. A meddler but with style. A fixer. A lovely performance.

As Cornelius, Mike Shara makes you do a double take with his triple takes of surprise. It’s a performance full of elastic body language all of it communicating the sweetness and boldness of Cornelius.

As Barnabus, Josh Epstein matched Shara moment for moment. Barnabus is innocent, afraid of everything and blossomed into an exuberant puppy when they faced adventure.

Even John Vickery—an actor whose work at the Festival has been hammy and dull–is a revelation here in several small parts. Inventively funny.

Santo Loquasto’s set certainly captures the largeness of Horace’s store and the grandeur of the other locations. I just wondered if the people sitting on the sides were able to see over various necessary partitions.

A problem with his other design for MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. In any case, THE MATCHMAKER is definitely one of the hits of the Festival.

And I liked the exuberance of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at

THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE and THE MATCHMAKER continue at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

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