Playfully Rocking The Boat
Ah, the tragedy, the remorse…if you're a lowly sailor when your sweetheart is a highborn captain's daughter. Such is the romantic lesson of “H.M.S. Pinafore," or "The Lass That Loved a Sailor," the enduring operetta by W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, loved for its gleefully entertaining camp and saucy satire, while skewering Italian opera as well as snobbish class consciousness.
Stage Door Repertory Theatre’s wonderful production of “H.M.S. Pinafore,” which opened on April 15th, running through May 1st, is no exception. Directed by Eric J. Hindley (“Sweeney Todd”), the emphasis is on laughter and lovely music, but this most pleasant façade is occasionally spritzed with Gilbert's pointed political barbs, as in "When I was a Lad," when The Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter (an ostentatious Glenn Freeze; “Damn Yankees”) sings of his unexpected rise from office boy to admiral—with never once setting foot on a ship: "I grew so rich that I was sent by a pocket borough into Parliament. I always voted at my party's call, and I never thought of thinking for myself at all. I thought so little, they rewarded me by making me the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!" (Without saying, audience members can be forgiven for feeling this has some contemporary political resonance.)
Its hero, Ralph Rackstraw (Sean Kranz; “Jekyll & Hyde”), is an able seaman of humble origin serving aboard the title vessel, yet he refuses to be outclassed, as it were, in his pursuit of the fair Josephine (Gabrielle Tresler; “The Light in the Piazza”), daughter to the ship's commanding officer and thus a maiden "much above his station." Love conquers all; class dismissed.
That lesson comes through clearly in Stage Door's current revival of this satire of rank. Director Hindley keeps a steady eye on Gilbert's targets here, and aims virtually all the production's resources at the English elite and their puffed-up snootiness, mocking their obsession with class in a most pleasingly refined manner. Chorus members make stately processions across stage, ending in arrangements as formal as those in a royal garden. Leading characters deliver solos and duets to the audience with the courtly directness of peers addressing Parliament. It's genteel to an extreme, but nicely accentuates the eyebrow-raising humor as well.
The first U.S. production of the show was in 1878 at the Boston Museum, six months to the day after its London premiere. The only problem? “H.M.S. Pinafore” had been taken over by bands of pirates! Gilbert and Sullivan had not filed for a U.S. Copyright for their work, so when the score made its way to the States, publishers reprinted it with wild abandon. Any acting company could stage the show without permission and without royalties to the creators. By summer the following year, in an ironic twist of fate and fame, over 150 individual Pinafore companies had blanketed the United States.
It is hard to find a modern analogy as to how popular “H.M.S. Pinafore” became in the U.S. in such a short amount of time. Newspaper and critics called it Pinafore-mania and others likened its spread to a contagion, with productions also taking place on ships on water (including one that sank). This seaworthy satire of overblown and romanticized nationalism put the wind in Gilbert & Sullivan’s sails and marked the beginning of modern musical theater. It melds jaunty melodies, acrobatic lyricism and a featherweight story into a comic satire on Victorian society, English Exceptionalism and, in this case, the incompetence of its hierarchy, summed up in the diaphanously inept apple-polisher turned First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Joseph Porter.
As the story goes, The Pinafore, a "saucy" beauty of a ship in Her Majesty's navy is anchored in the harbor at Portsmouth. Its proud sailors are busy scrubbing the decks for the expected arrival of the pretentious Sir Joseph. "Little Buttercup" (Dyan Hobday-Smith; “The Importance of Being Earnest: A Wilde New Musical”), a bumboat woman who is "red and round and rosy," comes aboard to sell to the sailors her stock of "snuff and tobaccy and excellent jacky," and other luxuries.
Sir Joseph arrives with fanfare, attended by his many "sisters and his cousins and his aunts," among whom is his loyal but jealous first cousin Hebe (Christine Carver; “Three Bags Full”). He explains that he rose to the top post in the Navy by sticking close to his desk and never going to sea. He also encourages the Captain to request that his sailors follow an order with the phrase "if you please." After all, his Lordship notes, "a British sailor is any man's equal." Indeed, he presents the crew with a song that he himself has composed to encourage "independence of thought and action in the lower branches" of the Navy.
The handsome Ralph tells his messmates that he is in love with the Captain's daughter, Josephine. Dick Deadeye (Minhquan Nguyen; “Crazy for You”), the embodiment of the ugly truth and the perfectly named parody villain, reminds the starry-eyed fellow seaman that Captain's daughters don't marry foremast hands. In turn, the gentleman Captain Corcoran (played by Director Eric J. Hindley), commanding officer of the H.M.S. Pinafore, arrives to inspect his crew, singing that he never uses foul language and is never sick at sea — well, "hardly ever."
Seaman Ralph is the very model of a modest-mannered gentleman, a fellow so staunch that he'd put a bullet through his head rather than live without his beloved, and so polite you suspect he'd apologize to the bullet beforehand. Mr. Rackstraw magnifies Ralph's virtue just enough to make it comical while still retaining our affection. As the woman he adores, Ms. Tresler’s Josephine is winningly demure and charmingly troubled by her dilemma—to be true to love or to her position. At the end of her solo, "The Hours Creep on Apace," when Josephine asks the gods of love and reason, "Which shall my heart obey," Ms. Tresler’s voice carves an operatic arc of anguish in the air that is pure and lovely.
Josephine, however, is also sought in marriage by Sir Joseph, but it seems that she has no enthusiasm for a union with that cabinet minister — for, as we noted earlier, she is secretly in love with her lowly sailor, Ralph. While the Captain and Sir Joseph sing the praises of polite etiquette and equality to the crew, they change their tune when Josephine and Ralph try to elope. The sailors and Sir Joseph’s groupies merrily plot to assist the lovers while swirling across the deck of the famous ship named for a little girl’s bib dress.
The resolution, almost directly from the pages of Verdi’s “Trovatore,” is a sudden confession by Ms. Hobday-Smith’s Buttercup, who has a clearly obvious crush on the Captain, that as a young nurse she mistakenly switched two babies, one highborn (Ralph), the other a commoner (Captain Corcoran). And the plot is wrapped up nicely with the distinctly British comic logic that today’s audiences will recognize as the engine that drove the Monty Python films: Ralph becomes the captain, the Captain becomes the humble seaman, and the class barriers to the marriage of Josephine and the former Ralph are erased. The former Captain is now free to marry dear Little Buttercup, and Sir Joseph agrees to marry his longtime admirer, cousin Hebe. All ends with "joy and rapture unforseen," for "he is an Englishman!" Hip, Hip, Horray!
In addition to the strength of the principals noted, there’s colorful support from an endlessly busy ensemble comprising Keith Morton as Bob Becket; Kevin Arnold and Eugene McDonald as sailors; David Anthony as Bill Bobstay; and Kristy Takacs, Sharon Barnard, Sarah Villacarillo and Michelle Pariso as a chorus of Sisters, Cousins & Aunts.
Directed by Eric J. Hindley, assisted ably by Thom Chapman; Musical Direction and Performance Tracks by Nick Bravo; Costumes by Julie Charles; Managing Artistic Director/Lighting Design/Set Design by Nick Charles. Executive Producers: Nick Charles & Julie Charles.
A nautical joyride of musical mayhem, belly laughs, and light and frothy fun, this Stage Door adaptation of "H.M.S. Pinafore" is an uproariously enjoyable production and boat loads o’ fun, a pint and skittles delight from bowsprit to sternpost. In short, a performance that lovers of Gilbert and Sullivan will want to see.
H.M.S. Pinafore plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00PM and Sundays at 2:00PM through May 1st at Stage Door Repertory Theatre, located at 1045 Armando St., Ste. B, Anaheim Hills, CA 92806. Ticket prices are $22 to $27 general admission. Tickets can be ordered by calling 714-630-7378 or visiting http://www.stagedoorrep.org/index.php
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Amy Gettys