Adam F. Brown
<i>H.M.S. Pinafore</i> revels in a nautical setting while satirizing a political scandal of its day.
For its 2010 production, Madison Savoyards turned to one of the most popular of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, H.M.S. Pinafore. As presented its first weekend, July 24-26, at Music Hall on the UW campus, it proved a well-planned crowd-pleaser.
The plot is, of course, one of the most zany and irrational of all the G & S works, with its revelations of reversed identity and its ignoring of ages in the couples' pairings. Gilbert enjoyed spoofing the great institutions of Victorian England, even as he personally delighted in the swagger and pageantry of the military services. So this was his chance to revel in a nautical setting while registering a particular satire about a political scandal of his day, involving the actual imposition of a patently incompetent appointee as First Lord of the Admiralty.
Stage director Terry Kiss Frank, a Savoyard expert of long standing, has lost no opportunity to milk the piece for visual humor. Movements and gestures are calculated to a fare-thee-well, to richly funny and minutely detailed effect. Concerned for maritime accuracy -- though slipping on some details -- she also has had the veteran costumer Karen Brown-Larimore vary the garb in clever ways, while Michele Fields' setting is properly evocative and the lighting by Steven Peterson is full of handsome touches.
On the whole, the cast is outstanding in both singing and acting. Heath Rush, as the romantic lead, the sailor Ralph Rackstraw, fields a meaty tenor voice, if not an ideal dramatic appearance. As his beloved, the conflicted but spunky Josephine, Amalia Goldberg -- daughter of a past Savoyards director, Michael Goldberg -- sings and acts with handsome conviction. Two other male leads are taken by true pros. Ryan Thorn is virile but vulnerable as the Captain, while Andy Abrams (active on the Madison scene in so many ways) makes a perfectly hilarious character as the pompous Sir Joseph Porter, the misbegotten Admiralty Lord. Even the minor part of Sir Joseph's cousin, Hebe, is deftly done by Gail Becker Koppa.
Two roles in the lower voice ranges fare a little less well. Though an amiable actress, Molly Spivey simply lacks the contralto heft needed for the crucial character of Little Buttercup, whose revelation turns the plot (and all logic) upside down at the end. And Dean Messerly, while acting a wonderfully despicable villain as the deformed Dick Deadeye, does not quite command the dark bass-baritone strength the part requires.
The chorus is excellent, and joins the soloists in especially diligent attention to diction, which allows the witty words to come through with clarity too rare in G & S productions these days. A new, young music director, Grant Harville, managed the musical preparation and conducts the 26-member pit orchestra with admirable precision. Oh, and particular praise for the handsome program booklet this year, a great advance over earlier standards.
The production is repeated at 7:30 on the evenings of July 30 and 31, and at 3:00 on the afternoons of July 25 and August 1. It should definitely be seen as the theatrical hit of this summer.