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Sailing On 

by Michael Bowen


A century and a quarter after W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan began their comic-opera partnership, G & amp;S freaks are still lurking about. Drop the word "pinafore" into conversation, and you'll be confronted with choruses of "Then give three cheers, and one cheer more, / For the hardy Captain of the Pinafore"; "poor little Buttercup, sweet little Buttercup, I"; "his sisters, and his cousins (which he reckons up by dozens) and his aunts"; "And it's greatly to his credit / that he is an Englishman."


Bouncy rhythms, wordplay, a certain cheekiness in the lyrics -- it's obvious why Pinafore is popular. But the play also turns on the issue of social class: The admiral won't marry a mere sailor's daughter, while the lowly swabber can only hope that the captain's daughter will notice him. Naturally, this being G & amp;S, which is to say a comic opera with the spice of melodrama, it so turns out that some babies were conveniently switched at birth. One of the deckhands has higher status than he had thought.


Pinafore is popular, in part, because it caters to our class envy -- though only for awhile. Social leveling, as a proposition, is broached, then squashed. It's all well and good to cheer on the underdog who hopes to climb the social ladder -- but once we have indulged the fantasy, we discover that he was really from the upper class, after all.


If you think all that's a bit much, consider this: Sullivan's knighthood was delayed for more than 20 years because Queen Victoria saw the antics aboard the Pinafore and was not amused. Surely the British social hierarchy was not a thing to be mocked.


The Lake City version of Pinafore gets some of the songs right, but the aristocrats aren't aristocratic enough, which de-emphasizes the social climbing theme. Overall, it's an uneven production. For every highlight, there is a needless drop in energy, some over-indicating, and, in the grand tradition of community theater, an actor or two looking appalled at finding themselves under all those bright lights.


Nevertheless, director Elisha Gunn-Taves runs a tight and comic ship, introducing directorial touches such as additional sailors' antics on-deck and mimed action to clarify plot points. She adds blocking to heighten the humor: The cast circles up at one point to obstruct the audience's view of a scandalous sight (the young lovers kissing!); the crew performs an elaborate military ceremony; all those sisters and cousins and aunts bunch up and shuffle around the stage with the First Lord of the Navy. Gunn-Taves also makes a couple of alterations: a joke at the expense of our Canadian neighbors, and the switching of a pistol for a noose so that the dastardly Dick Deadeye can have some extra comic business.


As Deadeye, Devon Riske has a thunderously deep voice, commanding the stage more than either of the naval commanders in the cast. High marks to Christopher Schott for the special make-up effects on Riske, making Dick Deadeye's eye socket really look dead. (It's so creepy that we recoil with an inner "yuck," just like any good audience at a melodrama.) Riske's harmonizing on "A British tar is a soaring soul" (about how sailors should be ever-ready for fisticuffs) is impressive.


But the best combination of singing talent and acting ability in this cast belongs to Rebecca Romano as Josephine, the sea captain's daughter. Unlike a couple of cast members, she keeps her breathing in control so she can project high-pitched power. In "The hours creep on apace," Romano helps us visualize her dilemma: wealth without love, or poverty with it. Soon after, she's skipping in circles as she sings a delightful trio with the First Lord of the Royal Navy and her father. In the melodramatic scenes with Ralph Rackstraw (Brad Perry) -- she loves, but dare not unclasp her heart, that sort of thing -- Romano finds ways to overact intentionally while letting us know that she knows just how silly this bit is. Perry does melodrama just as well. We can see the actor joshing even though his character is in earnest when he has to plead his love to a disapproving admiral: "Well, your honour, love burns as brightly in the fo'c'sle as it does on the quarter-deck." (It means "forecastle." Stop smirking.)


G & amp;S keep soldiering (and sailoring) on. Hundreds of small-town productions (like this one) may lack polish, but they're keeping an amusing and delightful tradition afloat. When J.Lo and Maid in Manhattan have moldered, HMS Pinafore will still be sailing the high seas of romantic comedy.





Publication date: 02/13/03

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