H.M.S. Pinafore – A delightful bit of operatic froth

H.M.S. Pinafore hove into the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts this past weekend and it was immediately obvious that the “sober men and true” who sailed her were not exaggerating a bit when they sang, “Our saucy ship’s a beauty.”  Peter Compton’s set of the foredeck of a British Navy square rigged sailing ship was a masterpiece.

I had the privilege and the pleasure of attending regular performances on both Saturday and Sunday and also of seeing the Technical Rehearsal on Friday evening.  As a result I was able to see all of the double-cast singers.

Let me tell you first a bit about the Technical Rehearsal.  The Lamplighters had presented Pinafore at different locations for the last 3 weekends, so they didn’t need a rehearsal for the acting or the music.  But each theater had it’s own lighting system, so all the lighting cues had to be redone.  It would be somewhat similar to performing it in a different language.  Director Jane Erwin Hammet  and Lighting Designer Robert Ted Anderson could do a certain amount in advance, but they needed a final rehearsal with the actual actors moving about the actual stage under the actual lights to do all the final adjustments.

Lindsay Thompson-Roush as Josephine; Photo by Lucas Buxman, 2011

From the viewpoint of the small audience (there were only about a dozen of us) it was totally different from an actual performance.  The most obvious differences were replacement of the orchestra by a piano (played by Conductor Brett Strader) and that the singers were not in costume.  It was really funny when Josephine (Lindsay Thompson Roush) made her entrance clad in Capri pants and a oversized t-shirt and twirling a lacy parasol.  Very different impression than in the actual performance Sunday afternoon.

When Hammet spotted something she didn’t like she’d stop the action, move the actors up- or down-stage and/or try some different light arrangements.  Then she might repeat the scene, or she might have them skip to the next place she anticipated a problem.  Oh, and the singers were not singing at full throttle.  It was fascinating to get a glimpse into how much detail goes into producing the final lighting of the performance that I had just taken for granted at the actual performance.  But the evening did not provide any of the intense joy of an evening at the opera.

That pleasure was left for Saturday and Sunday.  And pleasure it was.  As an old (ancient?) Savoyard my requirements for a good G&S performance are simple: it should be well-staged, well-acted, and well-sung.  Any deviations from the original 19th century manuscript should be in good taste and should be in the same spirit as the original.  Above all, the characters must all take themselves seriously, else the spoof and the satire built into Gilbert’s words and Sullivan’s music is sorely compromised.

Michael Belle as Ralph and F. Lawrence Ewing as Sir Joseph Porter; Photo by Lucas Buxman, 2011

Lamplighters passed all the tests with flying colors. F. Lawrence Ewing played the part of Sir Joseph Porter KCB to perfection.  In addition to his precise enunciation of the clever lines, he added another dimension with gestures of his exquisitely-gloved hands.  For example, in Act II he assures Captain Corcoran’s daughter Josephine with, “Madam, I desire to convey to you officially my opinion that love is a platform upon which all ranks meet.”  But his hands are laying out a tilted platform with his end  still noticeably higher than hers.

Michael Belle as Ralph, Lindsay Thompson-Roush as Josephine, and F. Lawrence Ewing as Sir Joseph Porter; Photo by Lucas Buxman, 2011

Later, during the finale when Captain Corcoran has become a common sailor he calls the engagement off because love “does not level them as much as that” while his hands lay out the tilted platform high-to-low; but instead of stopping to indicate the low end, his  hands flutter downward to indicate a level so low that it’s no longer part of the platform.

Michael Belle as Ralph Rackstraw; Photo by Lucas Buxman, 2011

Michael Belle sang the lead tenor role of Ralph Rackstraw in both casts and was still in excellent voice both times I heard  him.  After the Sunday matinee he admitted to me that he was glad he didn’t have another show that night – after 3 complete performances in less than 27 hours he was glad to have a rest.

Ralph (Michael Belle) and Josephine (Lindsay Thompson-Roush) lament their forbidden love; Photo by David Allen, 2011

Both of the Josephines (Jennifer Ashworth and Lindsay Thompson-Roush) were lovely to see and hear and wore their hearts on their sleeves.  Sitting near the front I didn’t need their words – love for Ralph and distaste for Sir Joseph was totally evident on their faces.

Sonia Gariaeff as Buttercup and Behrend Eilers as Captain Corcoran. Lamplighters Music Theatre's HMS Pinafore; Photo by David Allen, 2011

Behrend Eilers and Jonathan Spencer each did a fine job as Captain Corcoran including the lovely aria Fair moon, to thee I sing which opens Act II.  And both clearly conveyed their relief at being demoted from Captain and hence being free to marry Buttercup.

Ralph (Michael Belle) tells Buttercup (Sonia Gariaeff) about his hopeless love for the Captain's daughter; Photo by David Allen, 2011

This was at least the fourth opera I have seen this year in which Sonia Gariaeff had a significant supporting role – in this case Little Buttercup.  She had been in both parts of Pocket Opera’s Cav & Cat double bill (read my review), and had sung Flora in La Traviata in Fremont (read my review).  She was as delightful as I had anticipated.

Robby Stafford as Dick Deadeye; Photo by Lucas Buxman, 2011

Robby Stafford’s Dick Deadeye was properly evil and received a special accolade during the curtain call: enthusiastic hand-clapping for Stafford as a performer and a chorus of smiling “boo’s” for the villainous Dick Deadeye as a character.

Sir Joseph Porter (F. Lawrence Ewing) is admired by his cousin Hebe (Eliza Leoni); Photo by David Allen, 2011

Despite wearing granny-glasses and a severe hat, Michele Schroeder seemed rather young to be a cousin of the ancient Sir Joseph – but even that is in keeping with G&S tradition where the opening night role had been the debut of 25-year old Jessie Bond who went on to a distinguished 20-year career singing most of the major female roles in the G&S repertory.  Judging by what I saw, I can hope Schroeder will have similar success in the future.  I only saw her alternate, Eliza Leoni during one act of the Tech Rehearsal.

Michael Belle as Ralph, Lindsay Thompson-Roush as Josephine and Chris Uzelac as the Boatswain; Lamplighters Music Theatre's HMS Pinafore; Photo by David Allen, 2011

Chris Uzelac made a convincing Boatswain and combined with Carpenter’s Mate Ryland Hale and Ralph in some good close harmony singing A British Tar.

The choreography was imaginative and well carried out.  For example when the opening curtain goes up the sailors enter with mops, rags, etc. and engage in seemingly random motions to orchestral accompaniment.  But by the time they start singing “We Sail the Ocean Blue,” the mops are all moving in a synchronous pattern to the music.

A bit later the Captain and crew sing their cute dialog:

And I’m never, never sick at sea.
What never?
No, never.
What never?
Well, hardly ever
He’s hardly ever sick at sea

With each line the sailors bend uniformly in one direction or another with a precision one associates with the Rockettes.

Cousin Hebe (Eliza Leoni) and the other sisters, cousins, and aunts of Sir Joseph; Photo by Lucas Buxman, 2011

A G&S production can be no better than its chorus and the chorus of

George Ashworth
Melissa Butcher
Tony Cavalleri
Robert Dorsett
Katherine Leah Feller
Megan K. Fleischmann
Rose Frazier
Drew Green
Andrew Gustafson
Angela Jarosz
Kristen Jones
Steven Kahlich
Colin Ketcham
David Kirby
Rachel Larsen
William Loney
Marina Ma
Brenna MacIlvaine
Caitlin Nuckolls
Kathryn Schumacher
Abram St. Amand Poliakoff
Holly van Hoey
Abigail Vass

fully lived up to the soloists.

Director Jane Erwin Hammett and Conductor Brett Strade; publicity photos

And, of course, the whole show was held together by the Production Staff

Scenic Design
Costume Design
Lighting Design
Production Manager
Stage Manager
Jane Erwin Hammett
Brett Strader
Peter Compton
Judy Jackson MacIlvaine
Robert Ted Anderson
Phil Lowery
Asia Leade
and countless volunteers.

There is one more opportunity to see this excellent production of Pinafore.  It will be playing at the Bankhead theater in Livermore on Saturday and Sunday, August 20 and 21, 2011.  Call 925-373-6800 for details or visit lamplighters.org.

The Opera Nut

This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on August 16, 2011

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