My wife and I share many artistic passions in common, but Gilbert and Sullivan is not one of them. Victorian operetta has somehow passed her by. Earlier this week, she asked me, in all seriousness, “What’s that other musical we’re seeing at the Stratford Festival – PMS Pinafore?”
Not everyone, alas, had the opportunity to spend their early adult years getting down with their university’s Savoy Society as I did – and there aren’t a ton of chances to see professional productions of the work of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan these days.
Thankfully, the Stratford Festival continues to mount G&S on the grand scale from time to time. The powers that be at the theatre company have confidence that Gilbert’s silly satires (with underrated, witty scores by Sullivan) can still entertain a broad audience.
I only wish that they would hire directors who have equal confidence in the material. There’s a brilliantly performed production of HMS Pinafore on at the Avon Theatre right now – but you have to constantly look past what director Lezlie Wade and choreographer Kerry Gage have imposed on top of it to find it.
Wade has spent her energies in the wrong places. First of all, there’s a framing device that’s only comprehensible if you read the program. She’s turned the show (as Ethan McSweeny did, equally unnecessarily, with The Pirates of Penzance in 2012) into a backstage musical, setting her production in one of the British estates that were turned into convalescent hospitals during the First World War (and the second season of Downton Abbey).
This conceit gives the company something to do during the overture – rush around dressed as nurses and patients preparing to perform. However, the show-within-a-show angle is completely abandoned as soon as the first song begins, only returning in the final moments to dilute the operetta’s conclusion.
Otherwise, this HMS Pinafore is essentially indistinguishable from a regular one aside from The Rt Hon Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, First Lord of the Admiralty (Laurie Murdoch) singing of how he became the “ruler of the King’s navy” rather than the Queen’s.
The meta-operetta’s plot concerns Sir Joseph’s arrival on board the HMS Pinafore – where Captain Corcoran (Steve Ross) has plans to marry him to his daughter, Josephine (Jennifer Rider-Shaw). Alas, Josephine is already in love with a lowly seaman named Ralph Rackstraw (Mark Uhre), who loves her back despite being well below her station.
Meanwhile, Little Buttercup (Lisa Horner) wanders around the deck singing about a horrible secret she has kept for years – like a walking, talking spoiler alert.
The lead performances are excellent – Uhre and Rider-Shaw have exquisite voices; the always reliable Ross is in excellent comic form; and Horner is a hoot.
Murdoch’s nutty performance as Sir Joseph is perhaps the chief selling point of this Pinafore, however; he delivers even the most officious nonsense with a straight face, followed by an odd popping of his cheeks that never fails to get a laugh. This portrait of a man who screams at his inferiors about anti-bullying and is tyrannical in his support for democratic ideals is enduringly identifiable among today’s politicians.
HMS Pinafore remains a much funnier satire about the British class system than, say, Me and My Girl playing at the Shaw Festival this summer; there’s an awareness that as ridiculous as class is, people cling to their identities – and that sometimes those who speak of levelling can be the biggest snobs of all.
Alas, Wade’s production constantly endeavours to draw focus away from Gilbert’s jokes and lyrical wit. It’s relentlessly over-choreographed with movement that is disconnected from context.
Captain Corcoran comes out for Fair Moon, To Thee I Sing – and sings it to the water instead, forced into an unfunny fishing gag. Buttercup has to keep hiding sailors from the captain as she croons a thus incomprehensible Things Are Seldom What They Seem.” At the end of another tune, Glynis Ranney – playing one of Sir Joseph’s sisters or cousins or aunts – is made to vomit in a bucket for some unclear reason. Chorus members are always stealing focus by passing around joke props or engaging in perfunctory physical comedy.
It was Tyrone Guthrie, Stratford’s founding artistic director, who first introduced Gilbert and Sullivan to the company’s repertoire in 1960 with HMS Pinafore in a production that later toured to the United States. Starting in the mid-1980s, director Brian Macdonald had a string of hit productions of the operettas that updated the lyrics to touch on current-day politics.
This millennium, however, Stratford has yet to discover a director with a new bright idea on how to sell G&S to the next generation – there’s not and never will be enough room in them to turn them into dance extravaganzas.
HMS Pinafore (stratfordfestival.ca) continues to October 21.Report Typo/Error