Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2004
“Never mind the why and wherefore
Love can level ranks and therefore…”
– W.S. Gilbert
On the off chance that you have not seen, heard, or heard of H.M.S. Pinafore in the 126 years since it first opened in London in 1878, the idea that love levels all ranks is pretty much the sum total of the plot. Although, (theoretically) America does not have the same class system that exists in Britain, we can all understand the idea of marrying “up” or “down” and know that even today such an arrangement can be tricky.
Aboard Her Majesty’s Ship Pinafore Josephine (Stephanie Tanaka), the Captain’s daughter, and Ralph (pronounced Rafe) Rackstraw (Jeff Lohmiller), a lowly sailor, pine for each other, separated by the vast difference in their social rank. Josephine’s hand is sought in marriage by the pompous Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., (Mark Wilson) the first Lord of the Admiralty, who is as far above her socially as she is above Ralph. Similarly, Josephine’s father, Captain Corcoran (Steve Dahlin), and the bumboat lady, who is called Little Buttercup, though she can never tell why, (Alaina Warren Zachary), are loath to express their feelings for each other due to the difference in their stations.
The odious and odoriferous Dick Deadeye (Steven Leifer) opposes Ralph and Josephine’s secret elopement, and manages to get both Ralph and the Captain sent to the brig, when Buttercup reveals a miraculous Deus ex Machina that solves everyone’s problems and results in “three happy couples on the same day united.” Do not TRY to make sense of the final couplings. As Tom Lehrer said, “You can always count on Gilbert and Sullivan for a rousing finale full of sound and fury and signifying absolutely nothing.”
There are two schools of thought when it comes to directing Gilbert and Sullivan in the 21st century. Gilbert left extensive prompt books and there are people who believe that the Savoy operas should always be produced exactly the way Gilbert directed them in the late 19th century. Then there is the new school of thought ushered in by the 1980 Broadway production of The Pirates of Penzance, directed by Wilford Leach. Traditionalists are appalled by the new, goofier approach, and people used to the idea of rock stars warbling Sullivan’s tunes tend to be bored to tears by the older tradition.
So where does Richard B. Lapo, Jr.’s, production of H.M.S. Pinafore, currently running at the Ghent Playhouse fall? Much closer to the traditional than the goofy. There are no rock stars in evidence, just a solid amateur cast cavorting gaily on the fore-deck. They sing every note, and not all of them are easy to hit, and therefore much energy is devoted to the vocals and not quite enough to the humor.
This is a pity because there is a lot of talent on the stage, several of whom have proven their comedy chops in previous productions. For instance Wilson made a great entrance, following all those sisters, cousins, and aunts, and sang I Am the Monarch of the Sea and When I was a Lad very nicely indeed. I thought “Hoorah! They have a really good character man!” But he did not manage to maintain the same inspired level of silliness in his later scenes. Tanaka is a divinely goofy comedienne, and while Josephine is not a laugh riot of a role, I wish that she had been allowed or encouraged to ham it up a bit more.
I confess that I was a student of Wil Leach’s in college and lean far more towards the new approaches to Gilbert and Sullivan than the traditional D’Oyly Carte model. As I see it, somewhere along the line the traditionalists forgot that the Savoy operas were supposed to be living theatre, and not historical monuments for pigeons to roost upon. And they also forgot that they were supposed to be FUNNY!
Sometimes we take Gilbert and Sullivan so seriously that we miss some of Gilbert’s most obvious jokes. The ship is named after an article of ladies’ clothing, folks, and it is manned by sailors who never swear, (well, hardly ever). “Unlettered” Ralph Rackstraw makes the most eloquently inscrutable speech to Josephine proclaiming his love. Dick Deadeye says the most obvious and honest things about situations, only to be rejected with shock and disgust by his crewmates. This is not just the way things were in olden days, these are jokes. It is okay to laugh.
There certainly are many funny moments in this production, although there are also some missed opportunities. Tom Detwiler has designed a handsome and functional set that allows Lapo to have actors popping up every which way. An intimate scene between Josephine and Ralph can be invaded by the entire chorus in the twinkling of an eye, and Dick Deadeye can appear suddenly where he is least expected or welcome.
Most of the humor is provided by Zachary as Buttercup, Wilson as Sir Joseph and Leifer as Dick Deadeye. Zachary is not a large woman, and so costumer Joanna Maurer, who also appears in the female chorus, has built a few extra curves into her outfit, including a poitrine commodious enough to hold chickens and conies and pretty polonies! Her lively red curls would put Little Orphan Annie to shame.
Leifer has a very fine voice and a commanding stage presence. He and Lapo have come up with a lot of funny business for Dick Deadeye and for the people he interacts with. Leifer is almost wasted in this supporting role, but he does not have the high tenor required to sing Ralph. Unfortunately neither does Lohmiller, who strains valiantly for the high notes, hitting them more times than not, but a collective wiping of the brows can be heard throughout the theatre after each. The same is occasionally true of Tanaka. But when they are not faced with the highest notes both sing sweetly and make a winsome juvenile pair.
Wilson and Dahlin both have Gilbert and Sullivan credits to their names, and both do a nice job. Captain Corcoran is an odd role, most historians suspect that some of his scenes were cut or rearranged by Gilbert before opening night, but Dahlin is handsome and debonair in the part. Wilson, as mentioned before, has some really funny moments, particularly in Act I.
Lapo obviously knows the value of a kindly chorus, as he has assembled two good ones. All of the sailors, sisters, cousins, and aunts sound good and look like they are having great good fun up there on stage – cheerfully echoing just about everything the soloists sing just in case you didn’t catch it the first time. The stage at Ghent is too small to accommodate multitudes, so the choruses are small. In the case of the men that means a few of them get little solo turns and Steve Michalek and Bob Wills enjoy theirs as Bill Bobstay the Boatswain and Bob Becket the carpenter who join Ralph in the madrigal A British Tar is a Soaring Soul. Michalek also takes every opportunity to fall to his knees and slide to the edge of the stage in a brashly theatrical and totally un-Victorian manner that gave me the giggles.
Maurer has costumed the men very handsomely, but the women’s fashions look a bit more hodge-podge. I couldn’t figure out exactly which decade of the 19th century she was aiming for, although not attempting hoop skirts in the tight confines of the Ghent Playhouse was a good idea.
Pat Randall and Edward Fiebke have provided the excellent musical direction, enabling everyone to sound their very best, even when singing from far upstage. They also play the piano and third keyboard respectively. The second keyboard was handled well by the young Sarah Gilly at the performance I attended, a job she shares with Josh Gilly (who I suspect is a relation!)
Amy Fiebke is listed as Assistant Director and Choreographer, and at the performance I saw she took to the stage as well to fill in for a missing sister, cousin or aunt. Since Chuck Maurer joins his seamstress wife on stage, this production is a regular family affair!
H.M.S. Pinafore was Gilbert and Sullivan’s fourth collaboration, but their first monster hit. It was so successful and so widely performed, generally without permission, that the team was inspired to write their fifth operetta about pirates! Even 126 years later it is absolutely clear why this show was and is so beloved. The plot is cheerfully pointless and the music is absolutely beautiful. If you or people in your household have never seen a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, call the Ghent Playhouse NOW before they sell out. You will be glad that you did.
H.M.S. Pinafore runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. March 19-21, 26-28 and April 2-4 at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Tickets are $15, $12 for Playhouse members. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004