LETTERS TO EDITOR
BOOKS and CDs
Type too small?
CurtainUp Berkshire Review
H. M. S. Pinafore
Earlier this month I reviewed The Pirates of Penzance which is enjoying its second summer on the deck of the tall ship Peking at New York's South Street Seaport. Since this presented a revisionist's view with a cornucopia of musical styles mixed with the distinctive rhythms of Gilbert & Sullivan, I suggested that G & S purists consider a trip to Stockbridge, Massachussetts to see the Berkshire Theatre Festival's H.M.S. Pinafore. That production has now opened on the BTF's Main Stage. While it features some departures from tradition, it is true to the Savoy opera style -- and it's a charmer.
James Warwick, who last year directed the gritty American drama Coyote on the Fence at the BTF's second stage (see link), is equally at home directing this nineteenth century comic operetta. Not so surprising when you consider that one of Pinafore's favorite songs "For He's an Englishman" ("For he himself has said it/And it's greatly to his credit/ That he is an Englishman. . .") applies to Warwick as well as the show's hero Ralph Rackstraw.
The solid seventeen member cast, the splendid orchestra which sounds great from its perch on the upper deck of Tim Saternow's handsome set, the costumes based on the original designs. . . all add up to a visually delightful production alive with the music and lyrics that influenced theatrical composers and lyricists through the first half of the twentieth century.
The play's subtitle (not used in the BTF program) The Lass that Loved the Sailor more or less sums up the plot: Captain Corcoran (Hans Tester), the commander of the H.M.S. Pinafore anchored off Portsmouth, wants to raise his position in the world by the marriage of his daughter Josephine (Marcy Harriell) to Admiral Sir Joseph Porter (Stephen Temperly). The lovely Josephine's heart belongs to a humble sailor, Ralph Rackshaw(Ron Bohmer). The secret to a happy ending for all concerned rests with Little Buttercup (Melissa Hart), a Bumboat Woman (an itinerant retailer who provides the seamen with everything from sausages to hair pomade) who knows that "things are not always what they seem", meaning that perhaps the wrong men are wearing the uniform of captain and sailor. Without knowing the details of Buttercup's secret you can rest assured that despite a grotesque looking spoilsport named Dick Deadeye (Walter Hudson) Josephine and Ralph will live happily ever after and that the Captain and the Admiral will be romantically fulfilled as well.
To understand director Warwick's production, a bit of background on the librettist. William Schwenk Gilbert was a playwright of burlesques but also of serious dramas before teaming up with composer Arthur Sullivan to write the operas that made them both rich and famous. The story of H.M. S. Pinafore, one the first of their many successes, reflected a playwright's more serious intent -- in this case, to satirize the snobbery and hypocrisy of the English class system. In fact, rumor had it that it was because the characterization of Admiral Sir Joseph Porter was so close to Disraeli's First Lord of the Admirality, W. H. Smith that Gilbert's knighthood was delayed for twenty years.
The BTF Pinafore is thus a sort of homage to Gilbert, the playwright. For starters, the sailors are built up as characters and not just as members of the chorus. To accomplish this crew members who except for Dick Deadeye are usually generic "others " or " all " are here identified with names and job titles (e.g. Bill Bobstay, boatswain's mate and Bob Becket, carpenter's mate). The spoken dialogue includes a good deal of the usually sung-though recitative and some of the lead roles, notably the Captain and Sir Joseph seem to have been cast with an emphasis on acting over singing.
Mr. Warwick's effort to transform Pinafore from opera to play with music works nicely, but mainly because the music and lyrics, the heart and soul of any Gilbert and Sullivan performance, have not gotten lost. Besides the already mentioned "For He's An Englishman, all the most memorable arias, duets and ensemble pieces are in place ("We Sail the Ocean Blue, I Am the Captain of the Pinafore, When I Was a Lad, Sorry Her Lot, Farewell My Own" and more).
Marcy Harriell and Ron Bohmer, are true musical stars, with powerful voices and strong acting talents. Harrriell a creamy soprano is new to me but she was singled out last season by CurtainUp's Philadelphia critic as "an absolutely delicious and comic Nell Gwynn " in The Complete Female Stage Beauty (see link). Bohmer who brought new strengths to Sir Percy in the last and best days of The Scarlet Pimpernel on Broadway (see link).
The rest of the seventeen-member "crew" bring a happy combination of singing and acting talents on board. They also expertly navigate Jayme McDaniel's dances With the performers not only entering and exiting through the set's several doors and from behind the upper deck bandstand but via the aisles, the audience has a sense of being part of the Pinafore's crew, captain and visitors.
In the last decade the audience for Gilbert & Sullivan operas has somewhat diminished, even at London's to D'Oyly Carte. However, thanks to the film Topsy-Turvy, what threatened to become passé has once again become cool with audiences discovering and rediscovering Sir Arthur's distinctive melodies and Sir Gilbert's witty lyrics. Thus Berkshire Theatre Festival's production is as timely as it is fun.
LINKS TO SHOWS MENTIONED
Pirates of Penzance
The Complete Female Stage Beauty
Coyote On a Fence
The Scarlet Pimpernel