R: Louis Dall'Ava (far left) and William Whitefield (pulled by
sailors) in H.M.S. Pinafore
Photo: Noah Strone
by Deirdre Donovan
sailed into NYU’s Skirball Center in late December under the steady hand of
Albert Bergeret., the founder and artistic Director of the New York Gilbert and
Sullivan Players (NYGASP). Those who dropped by to see the new outing of the
comic opera might have marveled at how the Savoy tradition—with a few
contemporary twists--is a hand-in-glove fit with our culture today. Beyond its
social and political savoir faire, who can resist the peddler “Little
Buttercup?” Or the exalted Sir Joseph Porter? Or the ugly truth-teller Dick
Deadeye? Or the lowly sailor Ralph Rackstraw?
LtoR: Alan Hill and Angela Christine Smith with sailors in H.M.S.
Photo: Noah Strone
satire begins with the well-bred Captain Corcoran and his crew on board the H.
M. S. Pinafore, preparing for the visit of Sir Joseph Porter, first Admiral of
the Queen’s Navee.” Captain Corcoran’s young daughter Josephine enters, and in
a tête-à-tête with her father, reveals that she is head over heels with a
sailor named Ralph. This creates all kinds of ripples—and many an eyebrow to
raise (Remember that “upward mobility” wasn’t an option for the respectable and
hadn’t been coined in the Victorian period!) Realizing the world she inhabits,
Josephine first pretends that she isn’t in love with Ralph. However, when the
haughty Sir Joseph actually arrives on board and becomes a suitor for her hand,
she eludes his romantic advances and has a secret rendezvous with Ralph,
revealing that she honestly loves him. The couple plan to elope. And, as the
course of events unfold, and naval occasion rises, the complex subjects of
love, marriage, money, and social status are bandied about in the wittiest of
arias, recitatives, ballads, and ditties. The opera, of course, eventually
shows that all that “glitters is not gold,” and that social station can go
topsy-turvy (when Little Buttercup has her final say!). Indeed titles peel off
like old paint at its denouement and new titles get painted on--with an ironic
and colorful twist.
Auxier and male ensemble Photo: William Reynolds
the story is absurd as it gets. And its British nautical lingo might confuse
you at times (“tar” means a lowly sailor here, not the black-colored street
coating). But reconnoitering these absurdities and salty terms has always been
worth it. Although Pinafore may no longer be at the cutting edge of
musical theater, its debut at the Opera Comique on May 25, 1878, utterly bowled
over the critics and public. It sparked not only buzz but “Pinafore mania.”
Following its opening, Gilbert and Sullivan found themselves the” toast” of
London, with international fame just around the corner as the opera winged
across the globe. Pirate productions surfaced in America, much to Gilbert and
Sullivan’s dismay (no royalties were paid to them!) In fact, one of Gilbert
and Sullivan’s big problems with Pinafore was how to deal with its
success; the property itself became the gold standard of operetta of its day.
But keeping its staging authentic, and each new mounting fiscally
accountable, became an ongoing struggle for Gilbert and Sullivan.
Cameron Smith (top) and sailors in H.M.S. Pinafore
Photo: William Reynolds
H.M. S. Pinafore
has some of Gilbert and Sullivan’s best songs, ballads, arias, and melodies.
And, Bergeret, who characteristically cuts no corners in Gilbert &
Sullivan’s operas, stayed right on musical course here. In Act 1, there’s the
comically delicious “Little Buttercup.,” If that number calibrates the comic
tone of the piece, the patter song “When I was a Lad” ratchets it up, as it
chronicles the surreal rise of Sir Joseph from office boy to “Ruler of the
Queen’s Navee.” And, in Act 2, who can forget Captain Corcoran’s melancholy
solo “Fair Moon, to Thee I Sing” or the social questions teased out by the
trio--Josephine, Captain Corcoran, and Sir Joseph--in “Never Mind the Why and
real golden nuggets, however, were the topical references tossed out by cast
members, which covered everything from champagne to concurrently-running
productions in town. In fact, Broadway’s The Last Ship, along with its
creator Sting (soon to be on stage acting in his own show) got the most nods.
Yes, this 19th century classic strangely found a British cousin on
the Great White Way this season. So what can a little ad libbing and some bon
mots do for a new production of Pinafore? In this case, a lot.
cast--actors and dancers all--brought their strong musical chops to the fore.
Kudos belonged to its principals and ensemble members—David Auxier (Captain
Corcoran), Angela Christine Smith (Little Buttercup), Sir Joseph Porter (James
Mills), Ralph Rackstraw (Daniel Greenwood performed in 12/31
performance/Cameron Smith alternately performed the same role), and David
Wannen (Bill Bobstay). A few were making their NYGASPers debut, notably Kate
Bass (Josephine), who showed off her impressive pipes in her opening ballad
“Sorry Her Lot.” No stranger to New York stages, she has performed at Carnegie
Hall, Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, the Metropolitan Room, to mention a
shout out to set and light designer, Albere and Benjamin Weill, respectively.
Their combined efforts brought alive the nautical life with spit and polish.
Costume designer Gail J. Wofford didn’t overdo the period outfits. There was
more lace trim than artificial bustles stitched on the women’s long dresses.
The men’s outfits looked like the traditional Navy uniforms, with Sir Joseph’s
uniform being the most ostentatious. Looking at him cap-a-pie, he had on
fashionable knickers, trim jacket with brass buttons and gold-colored epaulets,
and a traditional admiral’s hat. True, there have been more British-style,
posh, and risqué, performances on stage and screen of Pinafore but this
latest version scored for its New York flavor.
to hornpipes and hoofing on deck, the aforementioned Auxier served as the merry
dance captain. Wearing two hats in this production, Auxier showed his
versatility by playing the fictive captain before the footlights and being the real
dance captain back stage. Say what you will, Auxier has nerve--and the
ability to inspire a whole cast to land on nimble cat’s feet in any given
scene. He had the company really kickin’ up their heels with brio. And
speaking of levity with a capital “L,” what a hoot to see Mills’ Sir Joseph do
the hokey-pokey with the ensemble and temporarily let down his hair.
the company’s fall offering, Ruddigore, was a crowd-pleaser. But Pinafore
--beat by dramatic beat—scored as the better show. There’s no doubt it deserves
pride of place in the Gilbert and Sullivan canon, The Mikado may win for
its exotic air, Pirates of Penzance has bragging rights as the
landlubber’s favorite, but Pinafore, hands down, can declare itself the
most buoyant opera of the Big Three. And, after a century on the boards, it
still floats, and perks up ears.
New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, affectionately dubbed “NYGASPers,”
arguably are the leading upholders of the Gilbert and Sullivan legacy in
America. Celebrating their 40th anniversary, the NYGASPers are hardly
slowing down, or asleep at the oars.
close to the Skirball as winter changes to spring too! The company is
returning to their new downtown home with a new production of The Gondoliers
in May. And if Pinafore was any inkling of what’s in the pipeline,
you would be wise to mark your calendars and keep your eye out for the
company’s return with a more Venetian look.
M. S. Pinafore
NYU’s Skirball Center, 566 La Guardia Place at Washington Square, Manhattan.
performance only: From December 26th – 31st.
more information about the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players and their
upcoming productions in 2015, visit www.nygasp.org or phone NYU’s
Skirball Center box office: (212) 998-4941.