Review: A Textbook Perfect H.M.S. Pinafore From New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players
The company returns for the holiday season with a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's breakthrough hit.
It says a lot about a civilization when its lasting culture is also its most satirical. Is this the sign of a society that values self-criticism, or one that is merely confident enough to ignore any onstage barbs? Consider W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, an operetta that depicts the Royal Navy ("bulwark of England's greatness") as a floating joke, and in which the most high-status character sails off into the sunset to marry his cousin. Taking aim at an intractable class system and an addiction to fashionable manners, Pinafore is as punk rock as Victorian theater gets.
It was the first transatlantic hit for Gilbert and Sullivan, who would go on to produce The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. It's set on a frigate commanded by Captain Corcoran (David Auxier) and manned by the cheeriest crew this side of the Pitcairn Islands. The captain's daughter, Josephine (Michelle Seipel), is betrothed to Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B. (James Mills), First Lord of the Admiralty and the captain's boss. "My only daughter is to be the bride of a cabinet minister. The prospect is Elysian," Corcoran beams.
But Josephine is actually in love with the lowly seaman Ralph Rackstraw (Cameron Smith). Is she willing to forsake a life of luxury for this love? Will she violate the taboo against class-mixing that keeps her father from wedding his true love, the bumboat woman Little Buttercup (Angela Christine Smith)? And why is it acceptable for Porter to marry beneath his station, but no one else?
In the operetta's most memorable number, "When I Was a Lad," this "monarch of the sea" tells us exactly how he ascended Neptune's throne: He's a well-connected lawyer. The lyric about his junior partnership being "the only ship that he ever had seen" still sizzles 144 years later, and one can easily imagine a radical revival of Pinafore that skewers our own dysfunctional meritocracy.
Sadly, there is no extra verse (a popular device in modern G&S productions) explaining why the fraudster George Santos now sits in Congress. Spare a couple of winking additions to the libretto (the captain mentions taking a Covid test), NYGASP presents a straightforward staging of Pinafore in period costume (by Gail Wofford). The sailors chassé and box-step (choreography for singers by Bill Fabris) on a multi-level ship's deck set against a lovely painted backdrop. The scenic design is by the mononymous Albère, which I suspect is the alias of NYGASP Artistic Director Albert Bergeret, who is also the director and conductor of this production.
Bergeret leads the cast and orchestra in a recording-ready performance of the score, the dynamics and tempo ideal in every moment. Particularly impressive is the a cappella trio of "A British Tar" (beautifully sung by Smith, David Wannen, and the delightfully expressive Matthew Wages). But even when the singers are accompanied (which is most of the time), Bergeret maintains excellent sound balance so that every satiric syllable comes through crystal clear.
That exemplary musicianship is complemented by Mills, who marries pristine diction with a talent for physical comedy: His unsteady embarkment, which resembles a fawn taking its first steps, hilariously tells the story of a sea lord who sticks close to his desk. His second act performance in "Never Mind the Why and Wherefore" is even more daring as he leaps into realistic pratfalls. He's like Lucille Ball in mutton chops.
As the captain, Auxier delivers dry wit through a lush baritone. Lance Olds is appropriately repulsive as the doomsaying snitch Dick Deadeye. Angela Christine Smith brings her bone-rattling alto to Little Buttercup. But of all the performers, Seipel most perfectly captures the mixture of musical virtuosity, outrageous melodrama, and sharp comic timing that makes Gilbert and Sullivan operettas a joy to behold nearly 150 years later.
If you've never seen one, this production of H.M.S. Pinafore is a great introduction. Bergeret and company don't reinvent the wheel, but why bother when it rolls this well? Gilbert's unadulterated lyrics distressingly still apply to the world of 2023, which tells us plenty about theatrical satire's ability to affect change.