Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2001
Like Major General Stanley, I can “whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense, Pinafore.” It is hard to keep me from singing along lustily in my seat. I say this so that you will understand that I am predisposed to enjoy myself at any halfway decent production of this show. Knowing this, I will attempt to take a look at this fine production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival as objectively as possible.
Two local theatres are beginning their 2001 seasons with works by Gilbert & Sullivan (the other is the Weston Playhouse, whose production of The Pirates of Penzance opens on Thursday) and this is quite a gamble because G&S are not everyone’s cup of tea. The loyalists, like myself, will flock to the theatre, but are there enough of us in Berkshire County and southern Vermont to really pack the house for a two or three week run?
H.M.S. Pinafore is a riskier show to open with than Pirates. Love it or hate it, the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Pirates starring Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Rex Smith made a big impact. No one has done a similar updating of Pinafore, and I really don’t think one could be done. Where Pirates takes place in a farcical never-land, Pinafore is anchored firmly in its time and place.
Of course, there are many G&S purists who HATED the NYSF production and like their operettas performed in the traditional D’Oyly Carte style. Such purists will be very happy with the BTF Pinafore, which is played very straight. The only objection I had from a traditional standpoint was the down-playing of the character man, in this case Stephen Temperley as Sir Joseph Porter KCB. In Gilbert and Sullivan the character man is usually considered the star, with his name above the title and the final bow at curtain call. Temperley is not only not the star, he is one of the two weak links in this otherwise superb cast, the other being Walter Hudson as Dick Deadeye. At the performance I attended Temperley flubbed his lyrics twice and his lines once, which I found shocking.
But apparently director James Warwick was not much interested in the character parts, although Melissa Hart as Little Buttercup is delightful. He has put all of his eggs into the juvenile lead basket, with excellent results. Normally the tenor and soprano leads in G&S are rather bland, good-looking sorts who can hit the high notes. In fact, they don’t even have to be that good-looking. In Ron Bohmer and Marcy Harriell, Warwick has two leads who not only can sing and look good doing it, but can ACT! This is a revolutionary notion in the world of the Savoy operas!
I have had the pleasure of seeing Harriell as Cunegonde in Candide and as Polly Peachum in The Threepenny Opera at Weston the past two years, and she is always wonderful. Her Josephine is a revelation, and my only regret is that since she is playing Josephine at the BTF I will not be seeing her next week at Weston as Mabel. I would dearly love to hear her sing Poor Wandering One. Harriell has a gorgeous voice, and is beautiful to look at. But it is the emotion and character she brings to Josephine that are so outstanding. Her rendition of The Hours Creep on Apace in Act II earned her a hearty ovation. Bohmer is a little more on the bland side as Ralph (pronounced Rafe) Rackstraw, but he brings our nuances in the character that I hadn’t seen before. His Act I duet with Harriell, Refrain, Audacious Tar was more of an emotional moment than a musical number, which caught my interest right away.
William Thomas Evans as Bill Bobstay has a hearty bass, which is used to good effect in A British Tar is a Soaring Soul, and his impromptu step dance during that number was a happy surprise. Hans Tester plays Captain Corcoran in true Monty Python British Twit style, an interpretation I had not seen before, and his baritone voice is lovely to listen to.
Tim Saternow has designed a handsome shipboard set. Huge white sails with bright blue sky behind form the backdrop, with steeply raked stairs stage right and left leading down from the fo’castle where the orchestra is seated in plain sight. When the actors come in and out of the doors under the upper deck you are aware of the forced prospective of the entire structure as the doors are much shorter than average and everyone has to duck.
The whole set thrusts the action and singing right out into the audience. This was by far the most intimate production of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that I have ever seen, including the many shows I saw in the cozy church basement where the Light Opera of Manhattan (LOOM) used to perform.
I took my 12-year-old son, Brandon, with me, and he complained the whole way down from Williamstown to Stockbridge that he did NOT like Gilbert and Sullivan. By the end of Act I he was laughing and crying at the same time, and he wanders around the house now singing “What, never? Well, hardly ever!” This production made him a convert. I think it will have the same effect on you and all the members of your family, young and old. This is GOOD Gilbert and Sullivan, and, in my mind, there is no better way to spend you time and money at the theatre.
H.M.S. Pinafore or The Lass That Loved a Sailor, runs through July 7 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs a little over two hours with one intermission and is suitable for all ages.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2001