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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 16, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 29
Gilbert & Sullivan scores with witty, satiric HMS Pinafore
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Gilbert & Sullivan scores with witty, satiric HMS Pinafore

by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

HMS Pinafore and Cox & Box
Bagley Wright Theatre
Through July 24


The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society has a likeable plan to make entertainment money go further this summer: a double bill of a Gilbert & Sullivan (G&S) favorite and a rare Sullivan composed one-act as a curtain raiser. And the two shows in one evening are sold at the same price as one regular summer outing. Such a deal&.

HMS Pinafore is the audience draw for the three-week summer run, which continues through July 24 with evening and matinee performances all Saturdays and this coming Sunday. To make summer money go even further, the G&S Society earmarks certain performances as "family nights" with a flat rate for the whole family.

Last Friday's opening performances of both Cox & Box and HMS Pinafore found that all's well in Seattle's Gilbert & Sullivan land. Both shows are performed with a lot of zest and spirited, silly fun. As usual, the Society pointedly includes a disclaimer in the production program: "Attempts at a detailed literal analysis of any Gilbert & Sullivan plot will only upset you and annoy your friends and others seated near you." In other words, relax, have a good time, and let the silly zaniness of yesteryear wash over you.

The Seattle Society, like many other G&S groups, is committed to producing all of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas in a workable rotation. The Seattle Society wisely stages several of the best known titles in close proximity to each other and intersperses the rarer works - which tend to draw fewer crowds - when the economy is strong and the bank balance stable. Pinafore was last seen in 2004, staged to celebrate the Society's 50th anniversary. Cox & Box - the true rarity of the summer - was staged only twice before, in 1968 and 1985. It's not quite correct to term the production a "once in a lifetime" opportunity, but that is almost the case.

Cox & Box was composer Arthur Sullivan's first chance to write for the British musical stage. Adapted from a short one-act play, interestingly titled Box & Cox, the musical libretto was written by a now forgotten F. C. Burnand. It originally ran close to 55 minutes. It was later shortened by the famous Gilbert & Sullivan producer D'Oyly Carte to about 35 minutes. No important music was cut in the newer "Savoy Version," just extended dialog and some musical verses.

Cox & Box is a trifle, but a pleasant one. Two men unknowingly share the same room in a London boarding house. Each works a 12-hour day and the unscrupulous landlord collects double the regular rent. This works for months until both men end up at home on the same day. Scott Bessho and Richard Hodsdon are terrific in the title roles, and Craig Cantley is solid as the landlord. An elaborate, detailed set adds to the fun in this spirited staging. It's first-class in every way - a terrific achievement for the Society.

HMS Pinafore is one of the world's most famous operettas, and one of the few that works as a contemporary fable. The famous satirical irony of some of the show's musical numbers is as topical today as it was in Victorian England. In the show's most famous lyric, the first lord of the admiralty pointedly sings of his questionable rise to military fame: "Stick close to your desk/and never go to sea/and you may be the ruler/of the Queen's navy."

The usual contrivances of Victorian melodrama propel the plot. The show opens with "We Sail The Ocean Blue," one of the most popular of G&S chorus numbers. Minutes later, Little Buttercup, one of the most charming characters in all of G&S works, boards the Pinafore. A "Portsmouth bumboat woman," the rotund Mrs. Cripps, always called Little Buttercup, offers her an assortment of scissors and such. Captain Corcoran, the ship's commander, notes that she is a "plump and pleasing person" and the audience immediately knows how that part of the story will end. Her opening aria, "I'm Called Little Buttercup," is another "hit" from the show - a charming waltz with a melody that is immediately recognized.

The Captain's lovely daughter, Josephine, appears, as does our handsome hero, Ralph (pronounced "Rafe" in the British manner) Rackstraw. On seeing Rackstraw, Buttercup has a terrifying musical moment and cries out, "Remorse, remorse." Victorian melodrama is set up for a "surprise" ending - a staple of theater at the time.

As the story progresses (and don't forget the Society's notice to audience members to avoid any literal analysis of the plot), the question of the British class system is widely discussed. Could a captain's daughter ever stoop below her station and love a mere "able seaman," like Ralph Rackstraw? Could the first lord of the admiralty - a stuffed prig, to be sure, but a "real catch" - lower his class standards and marry a captain's daughter? By the time - about two hours later - the audience understands Buttercup's cries of "remorse," all is straightened out and cupid has paired three delighted couples. All end happily in Gilbert & Sullivan land - one reason the pair's major works have survived for more than a hundred years.

The 2010 edition of Pinafore is terrific in every department. Jenny Shotwell is a delight as the sparkling Josephine. She is charming in every scene, but is a splendid comedienne in the Act Two highlight, "Never Mind The Why And Wherefore" trio. Oliver Donaldson is properly solid and handsome - and in terrific voice - as Ralph Rackstraw. Erin Wise is a total charmer as Buttercup, and William J. Darkow is properly gruff as the Pinafore's captain. Darkow is at his best in shared numbers, but bravely handles his Act Two opening solo ballad with acceptable skill.

John Brookes, properly prissy as the Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Potter, the first lord of the admiralty, is an audience-pleaser. In the traditional role of the patter king - a G&S staple - Brookes gets the show's best number, "When I Was A Lad," with its "never go to sea" advice. His "sisters and his cousins and his aunts" provide the women's chorus for the show. As usual for the Society, the men and women's choruses are major musical strengths (although a bit of overacting emerges from both groups).

Special mention must be made of the incredible work of Dave Ross in the supporting role of Dick Deadeye. Long the star of each year's show - he has played the patter king in the whole G&S cycle at least twice - he is now "on a quest to play as many unreconstructed villains as possible" in his next 25 years with the Society. He makes Dick Deadeye truly memorable but carefully never steals a scene he is not supposed to steal - a tricky task in Gilbert & Sullivan land.

For the record: Christine Goff did fine work as the stage director. Bernard Kwiram did likewise as the music director (and his fine orchestra also deserves special mention). Nathan Rodda's detailed scenic designs and Chelsea Blum's on-target costumes added visually to the show's success. (One quibble: Victorian women rarely appeared in public without hats and gloves, and Blum rarely uses either on the women's chorus.) Daniel Wilkins choreography added a valued measure of spirited dancing - including a strong shot of testosterone in a quartet of muscled men in tight athletic shirts.

All in all, the double bill is a musical highlight of the summer. Highest recommendation. Check it out.

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