The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ revival of H.M. S. Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor now at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College proves to be a joyful, beautifully sung and entertaining production. This fourth collaboration by Gilbert & Sullivan and their first bona fide hit is still a charmer after 145 years and is quite obviously a precursor to the later Broadway musical comedies. The cast is made up mainly of NYGASP veterans and an ensemble that wows with its precision and precise diction for Gilbert’s clever and witty words. The entire company sings splendidly Sullivan’s melodic score with its memorable arias, duets, trios and choruses.
While Albert Bergeret’s old-fashioned production does not sparkle, it is a solid, steady ship that satisfies with all its jokes intact plus a few new ones like the hilarious drunken scene between the captain and the First Lord of the Admiralty. Associate conductor Joseph Rubin kept the orchestra in close harmony and gave an excellent account of Sullivan’s lilting score. Albère’s attractively realistic scenery looked brand new and created interesting stage pictures. The lovely late Victorian costumes by Gail Wofford helped complete the stage picture. Benjamin Weill’s lighting design bathed the stage in sunlight for the daytime scenes in the first act, and used blues and purples for the evening scenes of the second act.
The Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are all parodies of events that took place during the Victorian era. In the case of H.M.S Pinafore set on a Royal naval vessel in the harbor of Portsmouth, it was a book maker chosen as First Lord of the Admiralty, the equivalent of the U.S. Secretary of the Navy. While this is no longer topical, the satire of class distinctions and bombastic nationalism is still pungent. Her Majesty’s Ship Pinafore is preparing for a visit by The Right Honorable Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B. All the sailors appear to be cheerful except Ralph Rackstraw who is in love with Josephine, Captain Corcoran’s daughter, but she has been promised to the elderly Sir Joseph. Unbeknownst to Ralph, Josephine is secretly in love with him but due to the difference in their stations in life, she has failed to let him know.
Guests on board the ship include Little Buttercup, a peddler selling trinkets to the sailors and who is enamored of the captain, and Sir Joseph and his entourage of sisters, cousins and aunts, particularly his cousin Hebe who is pining for him – and not very silently. However, Sir Joseph’s belief that “love levels all ranks” causes Ralph and Josephine to reveal their feelings for each other and they plan an elopement. Unfortunately, nothing goes as planned and the runaways are caught. Fortunately, Little Buttercup has a secret which leads to three happy endings.
While the young lovers, Ralph and Josephine, played by tenor Cameron Smith and soprano Michelle Seipel are both bland and tame, they both display lovely voices. Seipel may take her cue from the fact that Josephine is so completely under her father’s thumb but she makes her a very conventional and uninspired heroine. It is the character parts which win the most acclaim. As Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, baritone James Mills decked out in an unkempt white wig and enfeebled legs brings down the house with his capers and clowning. His most famous number, “I Am the Monarch of the Sea,” is still a showstopper after all these years, as is “When I Was A Lad” in which he explains how he rose to his present exalted position from office boy to “the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee (sic).” Choreographer Bill Fabris gave Auxier, Seipel and Mills a delightful soft shoe dance to their trio “Never Mind the Why and Wherefore” in the second act.
David Auxier turns Captain Corcoran of the Pinafore into a comic gem getting laughs on lines that are all his own doing. Contralto Angela Christine Smith as “the plump and pleasing” Little Buttercup makes the most of her two arias, “I’m Called Little Buttercup” and “A Many Years Ago.” Cynical sailor Dick Deadeye, the voice of reason, who is usually played as quite sinister, is made much more sympathetic by Lance Olds despite his eye patch and his hunchback. Victoria Devany as Sir Joseph’s pushy Cousin Hebe makes her presence felt as being both brash and assertive. (Who says Victorian women were shy, retiring flowers?) The ensemble of sailors, sisters, cousins and aunts are very effective both in their singing and dancing which accompanies many of the choral numbers. Dante Bergeret, grandson to Albert Bergeret, founder and artistic director of NYGASP makes a delightful stage debut as the Midshipmite and seems to be enjoying himself enormously with a 1,000 smile when he appears with a basket of bells in different sizes.
While the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are not as popular as they used to be, more’s the pity. The NYGASP revival of H.M. S Pinafore proves that it can still be utterly charming. Its brilliant score made up of ballads, patter songs and martial choruses still can make the heart race and the foot tap. It also offers many delightful character roles for singing actors who can be true to its very English sense of humor. The current revival is a fine introduction for those unfamiliar with the G&S canon as well those devotees who know all of the lines and melodies by heart.
H.M.S. Pinafore (December 30, 2022 – January 8, 2023)
New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players
The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, East 68th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-769-1000 or visit http://www.nygasp.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission