The Essgee Pirates (1994)
Producer: Simon Gallaher and
Director & Choreographer: Craig Schaefer
First presented in the Lyric Theatre of the
Essgee Entertainment, named for its proprietor Simon Gallaher (Ess Gee), started in the record business and branched into the theater with a 1994 production of The Pirates of Penzance. At first, no one would finance Gallaher's dream, but he eventually found a millionaire "angel", whose confidence was more than repaid: The show was a mega-hit in Australia and New Zealand, and the video version went double-platinum three months after hitting the market, making it the top-selling musical theater video ever in Australia.
Gallaher followed Pirates with similarly "updated" productions of The Mikado (1995) and Pinafore (1997), both of which were smash hits in Australia and New Zealand. A run on Broadway, once promised for late 1998, is still promised for an unannounced future date.
Essgee Pirates Logo
The Essgee Pirates resembles Papp's Pirates in many ways. Indeed, Gallaher and his co-star Jon English were in the 1984-86 Australian production of the Papp show, and their original intent was merely to revive Papp rather than to do their own. For reasons too lengthy to recount here, they decided on the latter, and the rest is history. Nevertheless, the similarity to Papp is ummistakable, and for those who saw the earlier show, your reaction to this production is not likely to be much different — for good or ill.
For those who, like me, were willing to embrace Papp's Pirates on its own terms, the production's breathtaking novelty shook all preconceived ideas of what a G&S show could be. No new production based on the Papp concept, however well executed, can again seize the viewer with its novelty. Luckily, Papp's ideas bear repeating, and there are enough original thoughts in the Essgee version to make it far more than a slavish reproduction of an old classic.
Like the Papp production, Essgee uses a synthesizer-based orchestra and freely updates the music. Some of the musical effects are so similar to the Papp show that I'm surprised Gallaher didn't run afoul of copyright. However, there are plenty of new ideas. The show opens with a fantasia of themes from multiple operas, including The Mikado, Ruddigore and Iolanthe (besides, of course, Pirates). During this, characters climb out of a large box, suggesting dolls jumping out of a toy chest. In Act II, "You understand" from Ruddigore becomes a trio for Ruth, Frederic, and the King.
The Fabulous Singlettes in the Mega-Mix
Pirate King and Major-General
Tim Tyler and the Police
The women's chorus is replaced by just three ladies marketed as "The Fabulous Singlettes," who mimic pop trios from the 1960s. They share the Edith/Kate/Isabel material fairly equally, but everything they sing is in '50s/'60s-style close harmony. They enter with parasols to the opening bars of "Three little maids," but the music quickly transitions to "Climbing over rocky mountain." (In the Essgee Mikado, "Three little maids" opens with the first few bars of "Climbing over.")
The Singlettes are rather trampy. After they enter, the first thing they do is sit down on the rocks and smoke cigarettes (while Daddy's not looking). I never quite got used to their beehive hairdoos, nor did I understand why one of them is a hundred pounds overweight. But, there's no denying that their musical contribution is superb.
The audience goes ga-ga over the finale, which Essgee calls the mega-mix. All the characters re-enter and sing souped-up reprises of their signature numbers. The Singlettes enter in cabaret dresses. The General Manager of the Lyric Opera of Queensland, where the production was first given, objected strenuously to the mega-mix, but after the opening night audience erupted with cheers, the mix was there to stay.
The cast are all first-rate. Gallaher, besides being a canny producer, is a wonderful Frederic. English, an Australian rock star from the 1960s, has a huge following down under. The mere sight of his bare chest and tight pants is enough to make the audience go crazy.
Derek Metzger, the Major-General, is a superb physical comedian, though it's perhaps a bit too obvious that this is a younger man in make-up. The lovely Helen Donaldson is Mabel, but she's the only one who doesn't camp it up. She seems to have walked in from a traditional production!
Tim Tyler and the rest of the police are in the Keystone Cops tradition that Papp created. However, this is no clone of the famous Tony Azito business. The rubbery Tyler has created a memorable interpretation of his own.
The Esssgee Pirates has been issued on CD and video. Both formats include the dialogue, but they are not transcriptions of the same performances. The video dates from several months into the run, by which time the show evidently had a cult following, judging from the audience reaction. The actors feed off of this phenomenon, and some of the comedy bits are frankly a bit overdone. The audience eats it up, but at 2½ hours the show is about a quarter-hour too long. The CD performance is crisper, but one certainly needs to see the video to fully appreciate all that is going on.
Further complicating matters, a 2001 video issue of the Essgee G&S trilogy in a box set features a performance from New Zealand, with different artists as Ruth and the Sergeant. According to the sales literature:
This video comes free as part of the boxed set and also includes a special half-hour documentary at the conclusion of the show hosted by Simon Gallaher who introduces never-before-seen clips from the trilogy including footage from the original Australian Mikado and a few other surprises. This archive video was shot on 3 cameras. As this is an archive of the NZ production, quality may vary at times.
Review by Donald J. Gregory
When I first heard this recording, I thought I'd died and gone to G&S Heaven. This is not a recording for the purist. It is an "enhanced" Pirates of Penzance similar to that done by Joseph Papp in the USA in the early 1980s. Unlike the Joseph Papp recording, there are no cuts on Sullivan's original score; there are just enhancements.
Simon Gallaher, who both produced the show and plays Frederic, is a popular singer in Australia. He has one of those incredible voices that melts you away in "Oh is there not one maiden breast." His performance is reminiscent of Rex Smith's in the Joseph Papp recording. However, in this case Frederic has some brains.
Not so for the Pirate King played by Jon English. His performance is absolutely great — his character has no brains. He has an expanded interchange with Derek Metzger (Major-General Stanley) over the orphan/often debate. The dialog on the CD can be a bit confusing if you haven't seen the video. When the Major-General figures out the misunderstanding, the sequence goes like this:
Major-General: When you say 'orphan', do you mean [he pats his hands down his side, denoting a poor soul] a person who has lost his parents, or [he waves his hands in a chopping motion several times] frequently?
The pirates figure out the problem at once. The Pirate King repeats the motions, turns to the Major-General, and asks:
The Major-General then repeats the question (with the motions), and the Pirate King finally gets it. What you, the audience, don't realize is that you've just been set up for the second act. Because in the second act, when Frederic tells the Pirate King and Ruth that the Major-General is not an orphan, the Pirate King stops, thinks for a minute, and then says:
"When you say 'orphan'," [Ruth groans] "do you mean…"
…and he goes through all of the same stage motions and questions. [A version of this bit was also used in the Papp production (but not incorporated in the recording). —Ed.]
Derek Metzger makes an effective Major-General. He plays best off Jon English in the exchange in Act I. "I am the Model of a Modern Major General" contains an encore, just as in the Joseph Papp production. There are also some local changes to the song to make it Australia-relevant.
Helen Donaldson has a gorgeous voice that is perfect for Mabel. She sings like an angel, hitting all of the very high notes, including those added in an original "ad lib" to "Poor Wand'ring One".
The entire chorus of the Major-General's daughters is reduced to 3, played by "The Fabulous Singlettes". These girls are a bit different than your typical Major-General's daughters. In Act I they come on to the pirates. Later comes the dialog:
Samuel: We propose to marry your daughters.
Girls: Against our will, papa! Against our will!
Major-General: Yeah, I'll bet!
In the Act II finale, you have:
Girls: The Pirates! The Pirates! Oh, my hair!
These girls are made up to be appalling! When I showed the video to some friends (who had never seen Pirates before), they saw Frederic throw off Ruth in the first act when he saw the "beautiful maidens". When the "maidens" arrived, their comment was, "He was better off with Ruth!" Fortunately Mabel arrived — the only female in the cast who's prettier than Ruth. (And Ruth is…well…not exactly 'fine'…)
Toni Lamond, Ruth, is also quite an entertainer. I thought her best part was at the end of Act I, where she didn't leave on cue but came back wailing ("Wahhhh!") during the ending chorus and attempted to lock Frederic in ship irons. (She got the Major-General instead.)
There is very little to find fault in this performance. There are a few too many encores on "With Catlike Tread" (6 in all!), and Jon English plays to the audience too much. Aside from this, I would give the recording a "must have" rating for any G&S fan who is not a purist.
There is both a CD and a video, and the soundtracks are an identical match (something very foreign to USA producers). The recording is a complete copy of the performance given on November 5, 1994, including the part where Ruth lost total control and blew a few lines.
American producers could learn a little from this CD and video. It's refreshing to actually see a recording that isn't edited. Both the CD and the video are complete, which makes it all the more interesting. The total runtime is about 2:20.
Review by James McCarthy
When Joseph Papp produced his modernised Pirates on Broadway in 1981, many G&S fans were delighted with the result. It had originality and go, and kept the spirit of the work firmly in view. Some of the good folk from the 1984 Australian production, including Jon English and Simon Gallaher, turned in creditable performances. English in particular, made a entertainingly garrulous Pirate King.
Some years later they are back, although sadly not in the original Papp production. This home-grown version is sloppy, indulgent and vulgar. The recent video, so proudly screened twice by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and with much ABC puff, showed a slow paced, heavy handed style of G&S, more in tune with a football club fund raising. This is G&S for your beer and prawns night. As such, it has been a very successful exercise.
The CD of the show may make a reasonable memento for those who have never heard the opera before and never will again, but by no stretch of the imagination is it a reasonable version of anything except its lamentable original. I suppose this is fine for them that likes it, but I want to know why the ABC has presented this shoddy piece of work as if it were a quality product? As with many down market directions in the ABC of late, one is inclined to lament with the Duke Orsino, who in Twelfth Night cries: "Enough; no more: 'Tis not so sweet now as it was before." Sullivan's clever orchestrations, to say nothing of the inventive Broadway ones from 1981, have been replaced by Kevin Hocking's synthesised efforts, which spill over into a weak sort of clubby rock'n'roll when required. Any beauty the score had has vanished, bits of the other operas litter the trashy prelude, God knows why? The undernourished male chorus punches phrase endings in order to keep some line and make an impact, and the Fabulous Singlettes (fabulous by who's standards I wonder — the Black Stump Light Opera's?) seem to have been dragged in from some high school rock concert. Helen Donaldson only just passes muster as Mabel, happily Simon Gallaher as Frederic is incisive and sings, or croons reasonably well. As Ruth, Toni Lamond doesn't sing at all and does it in some sort of broad 'ocker' accent that has no relationship to anyone else in the cast.
By the time the recording was made 'live' in Brisbane, the show had been on the road for quite some time and the cast performs as if they were bored witless and trying desperately to find something more in the material. No stone is left unturned as they dig up every heavy-handed gag and every bit of mugging they can find. To be fair, it is clear the audience has a high old time of it, complete with cat calls, whistles and frenzied applause at the slightest suggestion of any wink or leery aside from the stage. High class stuff this, just the sort of thing the ABC revels in these days. What adds insult to injury, is the smug letter on the record slick from ABC Music: Congratulations on choosing this album - the ABC are proud of our artists and our work and we are constantly striving to bring you the highest quality recording. etc. Who do the ABC think they are kidding? Themselves no doubt, or were they all simply being slaves to duty?
|ABC Video||VHS PAL||14653|
|1995||EMI||CD||8822642||A "demo" CD including just the mega-mix from Mikado and Pirates This CD was on the market only briefly before being withdrawn due to a union squabble.|
|1998||Essgee Entertainment||VHS PAL, NTSC||[no number]||Australian performance.|
|2001||Essgee Entertainment||VHS PAL, NTSC||[no number]||Box set including the Essgee Pirates, Mikado and Pinafore. This set includes the New Zealand performance of Pirates.|