H.M.S. Pinafore at the Guthrie

Welcome to the high seas!

Welcome to the high seas. Okay, welcome to the dock where the good ship Pinafore sits in barely 10 feet of water, while the sailors swab the decks, check the guns, and, of course, sing and dance their way through the days as if they are in a Victorian-set Village People video.

When it's clicking (which is a good chunk of the time), the Guthrie's H.M.S. Pinafore is a lot of fun—a wild romp through a delightfully silly situation with broadly drawn comic characters and a set of wonderful Gilbert and Sullivan songs. It doesn't always reach those heights, however, as the production is tied down by a, shall we say, poor choice to "update" the musical accompaniment and make some additions to the story (from local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher) that don't do much but lengthen the evening without adding anything to it.

First produced in 1878, H.M.S. Pinafore was a breakout success for Gilbert and Sullivan, drawing in audiences for its satiric take on Her Majesty's Navy and the meaning of birth and class in British society. Apart from sowing the seeds of modern musical theater, the piece also has plenty of terrific comedic songs and several nice moments for the romantic leads to showcase some considerable vocal talents.

Gilbert and Sullivan meets rock 'n' roll: Christina Baldwin (top), Tinia Moulder
Michal Daniel
Gilbert and Sullivan meets rock 'n' roll: Christina Baldwin (top), Tinia Moulder

Details

H.M.S. Pinafore
Guthrie Theater Wurtele Thrust Stage
Through Aug. 28; 612.377.2224

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The plot mainly...oh, forget the plot. It's there mostly to string the musical pieces together and to allow the creators to prod and poke at their stiff society, from the Lord of the Admiralty who has never been to sea to a pair of lovers separated by their different classes.

Let's tackle the musical direction first. Andrew Cooke updates it all for more modern instrumentation, tossing in rocking guitar riffs, electric organ, and a drum kit. It does update the sound, but only up to 1978 or so (or think of any 1980s big-budget Broadway musical), and it often intrudes mightily on the singers. Several times, especially during the romantic ballads, the accompaniment more befitted Styx than one of the great musical theater composers.

Choreographer David Bolger, on the other hand, delights from beginning to end, aided by a company of limber-limbed sailors and leads with the acumen to put the right comic accent on the moves. It all comes to a glorious head during numbers extolling the virtues of good, solid English sailors that include tap-dancing Navy men and an unusual display of the Union Jack (bonus kudos to costume designer Fabio Toblini for that).

On the comic side of things, Peter Thomson (as Sir Joseph, the High Lord of the Admiralty) and Robert O. Berdahl (as the captain) lead the way, both doing their best dancehall routines to bring out the laughs. The always excellent Christina Baldwin triumphs again as Buttercup, the local lass who can uncover the entire plot and set things right between the lovers with a song.

Aleks Knezevich has the right lantern-jawed look and crisp, clean voice for romantic lead Ralph Rackstraw, and Heather Lindell is able to bring some heartfelt emotion to the comic madness in her spotlight performances as the captain's daughter Josephine, who loves a man below her station.

At times, the Joe Dowling-directed production threatens to descend from satire and goofy titillation into baser, Benny Hill territory, and the two sides don't sit together very well. I get that some of the characters are pompous asses; I don't need their rumps shoved in my face to sell the point.

 
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4 comments
John
John

Simply dreadful! Even a smelly armpit joke. G & S must be spinning in their graves. My wife and I turned it off after 15 minutes.

Robert Dean
Robert Dean

I was looking forward to the PBS fall festival arts series, and especially Pinafore, but this abomination from the Guthrie did a terrible disservice to PBS. Mr. Phillipson is precisely correct in his defense of Arthur Sullivan's wonderful music and orchestration; there was absolutely no need to attempt this "updated" gay disco version. As Mr. Huyck so alliteratively pointed out, the opening (as well as other numbers) resembled a Victorian Village People video. Hatcher's "contributions" do not even come close to W.S. Gilbert's witty and clever dialogue and lyrics. Queen Victoria was probably added to the plot so that Barbara Bryne (possibly one of the better known of the Guthrie's living veterans) could be brought into the production, especially for the PBS broadcast, but I found this addition just jarring; it interrupted the flow of the story and - worse - made the show overly long. As for the performances, the director is probably most to blame here, but, for example, Berdahl's Corcoran looked to be in serious danger of either bursting into flame or taking flight. I found the choreography mostly serviceable, but when the sailors started tap-dancing, I thought for a few seconds that I might have dozed off and mistakenly switched channels to a production of "Anything Goes"; and when a lack of dancing ability has to be made to look like an "accidental" misstep, you know you're in trouble. I thought the costumes were pretty (although I could have done without Ralph's male stripper turn - not that he didn't look good pantsed, it was just another unnecessary cheap joke and it wasn't very funny) and the set was fine, but as for almost everything else: We are not amused!

Don Phillipson
Don Phillipson

The TV broadcast held me for 12 minutes, no more. I confess to a bias, as a professional singer and veteran of six or eight Savoy operas including HMS Pinafore. The fatal flaw of thisproduction (or the first scene) was that the "updated" music is simply boring and Sullivan's tunes and orchestration (and tempi above all) are never boring. The director discarded the dynamism of the original show and adding fine dancing could not make up the loss. He was no doubt trying to fill out the evening. As written, HMS Pinafore takes no more than about 80 minutes to perform.

Gmpoor
Gmpoor

Comments from my family after the show:"That was the worst production I've ever seen, anywhere." "It was a gay romp on a ship!" "What a waste of an evening." From the first number, I hoped for a pirate attack. The horrible disco score overshadowed all of the songs, it was horrrrible. The acting was so hammy, I felt insulted. Cleavage, tap-dancing and exploding confetti couldn't distract from this miserable musical.

 
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