"H. M. S. Pinafore" sailed into the Touhill last night filled to the gunwales with glorious music, spectacular voices, and wonderful, rich, gentle, bright comedy. This production, by the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players, was simply perfect, and my heart cries for anyone who missed its one-night call at the port of St. Louis.
"Pinafore" (launched in 1878) was not Gilbert and Sullivan's first comic opera, but it was their first smash hit, and it's a grand show-case for the splendid musical and satirical gifts of this amazing pair. With numbers ranging from jolly music-hall songs, to stirring choruses, to duets, trios, madrigals and outright romantic arias Gilbert and Sullivan are magically able to both mock and sweetly embrace grand opera, melodrama, the class structure, the Royal Navy, and patriotism—as well as the very idea of being English.
"Pinafore" reflects a time when the British Empire was at its zenith and the Royal Navy was the empire's implementer and world-wide policeman. Britain did literally rule the waves.
"H.M.S Pinafore" or "The Lass that Loved a Sailor" takes place on the deck of that eponymous square-rigger. The crew are all honest, hard-working Jack Tars under the command of their beloved Captain Corcoran, who is a model of benevolence and decorum. Young Ralph Rackstraw is in love with Josephine, "A Maiden Fair to See"—but she is the Captain's daughter, and he a lowly foretopman. (Please excuse that oxymoron.) So she hesitates to accept Ralph's proposal, though she is already in love with him. Moreover, her father has promised her hand to Sir Joseph, the First Lord of the Admiralty.
When Sir Joseph arrives aboard with his female entourage (his sisters and his cousins whom he numbers by the dozens) we find that he is old, and short, and certainly not attractive—and he's about the stupidest pompous British twit one could imagine. Josephine finds him repulsive. Thinking that her reluctance is due to her feeling unworthy to wed one of his exalted position Sir Joseph persuades her that "love levels all ranks." But he is later to regret this little lecture, since it encourages Josephine to elope with Ralph.
This new liberal concept that all men are equal is enthusiastically embraced by the entire crew—except for Dick Deadeye, the ship's cynic. He betrays the elopement plot to the Captain. In his outrage the supremely genteel Captain is driven to utter the abhorred "D" word.
Well, in the end the jovial Buttercup, a vendor of snacks and tobacco, gadgets and ribbons, reveals a long-kept secret which surprisingly (but to the content of all) makes Ralph the Captain's social superior. As in a proper comedy the evening ends with three prospective weddings.
The entire production would seem to have come straight from the Realm of Ideal Forms, it is so perfect. The beautifully designed ship, with its lovely great backdrop of sea and other vessels is a splendid setting for the brilliant jewels that shine from it—the gorgeous voices, the crisp lively dancing, the fine orchestra, the beautiful costumes—and the impeccable sense of comedy. There are two dozen or so in the cast, and every single one is, at every moment, utterly and deeply and happily committed to the true spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan. They sweetly, honestly, endearingly embrace these characters. They so respect the script—and they let the mockery be done by Gilbert and Sullivan.
Daniel Greenwood and Kate Bass, as the lovers, are beautiful young people who have two of the purest, most exquisite voices I've encountered in a long time. David Auxier, as the Captain, displays a fine lyric baritone, and Stephen Quint, as Sir Joseph, is a master of the patter-song. Together they triumph in some of the show's most imaginative and hilarious comic moments. Such timing! Such finesse! Together with Ms. Bass they make "Never Mind the Why and Wherefore" one of the most engaging, exhilarating pieces in the evening. Starting at allegro vivace the song is reprised again and again—each time at a faster tempo—until the exhausted Captain marches down to the footlights and aims a musket at the conductor to force him to stop this nonsense.
Angela Christine Smith is splendid as Buttercup. Victoria Devany as the shrewish Cousin Hebe, and David Wannen and Matthew Wages as the Bos'n's and Carpenter's Mates all give very strong support. And Louis Dall' Ava blesses the role of Dick Deadeye with a quite remarkably strong and clear bass-baritone.
All in all Artistic Director Albert Bergeret deserves mountains of praise for creating this brilliant production—so true in every way to the very heart of Gilbert and Sullivan.
In the last two weeks we've seen two Gilbert and Sullivan shows at the Touhill—both delightful, but very different:
1. "The Mikado," a very imaginative, slightly modernized student production on the small stage, with minimal technical aspects, and
2. "H. M. S. Pinafore," a very lavish, fully-staged and very, very professional production on the main stage. Everything here is classic Gilbert and Sullivan as it might have been seen in London in 1878.
The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players have all thirteen of the G&S comic operas in their repertoire. I will most definitely go to see the next one they bring to town.