Monday, 20 June 2011

Review: HMS Pinafore at the Guthrie

Before I comment on the play, I want to express my strong feelings that the Guthrie is an outstanding institution and that we in Minnesota are extremely fortunate to have such a fine theater and hence should do everything we can to support it. If you are not someone who tithes to your favorite religious organization (and even if you are!), then perhaps you would consider tithing to the arts. The arts contribute to public discussions of ideas, personal edification, and they build community. I can recommend any play at the Guthrie as time well spent, whether it has a few rough edges or is an incomparable masterpiece, in any case it will be time well spent.

Review: HMS Pinafore at the Guthrie

My second proviso is that I attend the preview performances. This means the version of the play that I see is incomplete, because adjustments are made after the director has a chance to see how the performance plays before an audience. Plays rarely get worse after previews, so assume that many of my dissatisfactions will have been eradicated by the time the production is ready for prime time.

All that being said, I had a marvelous time at the Saturday, June 18th production of Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore. It is a thoroughly silly play and those that brook no infantility would probably not enjoy it, but if you can enter into the production in the spirit it is given, it is a marvelous whirl through an imaginary Victorian kingdom of manly men, miserable matrons, high-minded maidens and merry mix-ups.

Crew rehearsing

At present the production's quality is mixed, some of the musical numbers were still a bit rough while others were joyous and well put together. Peter Thomson's "When I was a Lad" was marvelous, assisted with perfection by "his sisters and his cousins and his aunts". The big tap number near the end is alas, not the stunner that it should be. The choreography there is uninspired and some of the tapping (especially early on in the number) is sloppy and at best tepid. Nonetheless what is missing in accuracy is overcome by personal enthusiasm, and the wanton silliness of the final number with its over-the-top joyousness compensates for the more minor problems. And the tango with Buttercup and Captain Corcoran is wonderful recompense, giving us lovely moves and sterling execution.

The music also bothered me a bit. There was a tendency by the nine piece orchestra to modernize the music somewhat providing a loose swing quality that had the same effect on me as muzak. This may be my own little foible, but I much prefer the crisper old-fashioned versions of the songs. This problem was amplified (literally) by the fact that the band often overwhelmed the singers. We do want rousing music, but it should still be crisp, and the singers should be hearable above the jubilation, especially since the lyrics are so deliciously clever. The audience needs to know that the only ship that the Right Honorable Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B had ever known before his appointment as "ruler of the Queen's Navee" was a partnerSHIP in a law firm. No doubt the volume will be well under control by next week's opening night.

I also have to rave (but with appropriate propriety of course) about the costumes. Fabio Toblini made the production positively shine with his clothing and fabric choices. The navy is suitably nautical and the Right Honorable Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B is exactly how I imagined him complete with Victorian hat of the admiralty and sumptuous paunch. Buttercup is redolently sleazy in her decolletage and red skirts appropriately tucked up to reveal her super-sensual striped green and black stockings. Best of all were the glittering costumes of the sisters and the cousins and the aunts in shiny satins and with the most luxurious meldings of colors. There is one particular purple, fuchsia and tan dress that gave me goosebumps it was so delectable!

The acting is also uneven, occasionally overstepping the bounds of broad satire into excessive camp, but the two primary actors of the play are the very model of perfection, knowing exactly when to hold back and also when to milk a silly line for everything it is worth. Christina Baldwin positively glows in her performance of poor little Buttercup, the bumboat gal who has an unfortunate and mysterious past. No little maid from school is she - she positively oozes sexuality and experience. Equal to her excellence is her requited, but unavailable love interest played by Robert O. Berdahl (who rocked in an earlier production of The 39 Steps.) His Captain Corcoran is a delicious presentation of a pretentious British Captain. He knows precisely how long to draw out his vowels to offer us the height of British upper class pretension. It is a pleasure to listen to (as well as watch) his puffed up Corcoran as he boasts about his perfect (well, almost perfect) comportment.

Brigitte Norby's publicity photo of Dowling, Baldwin and Berdahl

Just look at the range of foppish pomposity that Berdahl is able to show over the course of just a few minutes in his song about being Captain of the Pinafore (and its even better in his giant nautical mustache!):

The supporting cast is great and the sailors do a good job. Jason Simon is appropriately over the top with his Dick Deadeye and will help the children stay attentive when the song lyrics may be tad too clever for young imaginations.

It was also wonderful to see Barbara Bryne back in a role that she seems almost born to play - the "Very Special Visitor". Her diminutive height and ability to look sternly and thus appear to be six feet tall and in complete control, bring just the right air to this role of a woman who has had to forgo her desires for her duties.

Indeed one of the things that I enjoyed most about the play is that the women are shown to be far more intelligent than their male counterparts. While it is an outwardly silly play, the issue of class inequality is of significant importance and it seems that it is the women who not only suffer the most, but also ask what action can be taken to correct unfortunate situations. Josephine the Captain's daughter looks at the serious repercussions of giving up a well-to-do life to become the wife of a common tar and realizes that it would be nigh impossible to be happy on love alone, but also finds ways to elude the Right Honorable Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B. and use his own words against him in her suit to marry seaman Ralph Rackstraw. Seri Johnson's cousin Hebe also knows how to step in and take action and eventually is able to make her very distant cousin her own (and Hebe does the role to perfection!) ... And of course it is Buttercup (whose selfless willingness to reveal publicly her horrible error) that saves the day and eventually paves the way for her own and the Captain's happiness. From the beginning of the play we know that love can not level all classes, but by the end we understand that a smart woman can.

Christina Baldwin as Poor Little Buttercup

By the way, for those who wish to take me up on my recommendation to make a donation to the Guthrie, click the link here.

Or click to donate to the MIA or the Walker .

Don't forget the music scene you could contribute to the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, The Minnesota Orchestra or the Minnesota Opera and there are so many others too.


John said...

I saw a preview performance on Sunday evening and I agree with your observations. Most of this production was stellar: the singing, dancing, costumes and acting were brilliant. But the "new" orchestration was HORRIBLE! Why, why, why mess with a good thing, except to dumb it down for the masses, who cannot appreciate G & S's original parody of English music hall. Pinafore was NOT meant to be a 1970's Broadway musical a la Cats. WTF??? I felt sorry for the talented actors who were forced to sing those "new," "improved" renditions. No wonder they struggled, having to sing massacred, once perfectly lovely passages, their voices straining to fit a 19th century melody into some hack-arranger's personal masturbatory fantasy.

The Artist formerly Known as Purpleworms (!) said...

Thanks so much for your comment, John! It is always good to have second opinions (especially when they are in agreement. (wink!))

John said...

I'm curious to see the reviews in the local press and wonder if they will conform to our very astute observations!

The Artist formerly Known as Purpleworms (!) said...

Well, I think the Guthrie will fix some of the problems before the big guns do their reviews. (I hope they will!) I know there were Guthrie tagged people sitting not far away asking people for opinions and I heard a neighbor remark on being unable to hear the lyrics. As for the broadwayisation of the music, I am more dubious that this will change.

The Artist formerly Known as Purpleworms (!) said...

Oh and John, You have impeccable taste! No wonder we agree (wink!) Anyone who has Thomas Mann on his list of favorites (and then All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard! They might start calling us the Gemini Twins!) Now write a blog and show your stuff!

John said...

Geminis rock!

Enid said...

I can only gasp with horror and disagreement with the positive notices for this coarse, grating and ugly "Pinafore". The whole concept insults an irreverent, adorable,tuneful satire on the class system in GB. The campy
Captain is painful to watch. The ingenue, tho pretty, cannot sing or act. The musical adaptation is ugly, and while attempting to be more up-to-date than the original simply destroys it. The only positives I can think of are Buttercup and the dancing. Pooh on the whole disappointing production.

Eye said...

We are watching it in Los Angeles now, and are enjoying it thoroughly. The orchestrations took some getting used to, but we think they serve this first-rate, Broadway-worthy production well.

The Artist formerly Known as Purpleworms (!) said...

Enid, while my response was not as negative as yours, I do think you have pointed out some of the major weaknesses of the production and I do agree with many of them. I too was disappointed that the political aspect of class was not made more pointed. It is of course there, but I feel there is a certain defect in the play in that the ingenue needs to be more ridiculous and yet she has a dramatic ballad (perhaps taken too seriously in the production - but we also know that at least one of the pair really wanted to write serious pieces and not comedy).

Pinafore is the first musical I ever saw on stage, so perhaps I have a nostalgic bias. I was sorry that the ingenue was so weak and certainly agree that Buttercup and the dancing was the best part of the production. The staging was lively and that is an important part of a theater production in terms of making one enjoy or not enjoy a piece. As for the Captain being campy, well, I don't believe I would want him played with seriousness -it is Gilbert and Sullivan after all and not Bertolt Brecht. If he were not fatuous and indicative of pompous class attitudes, then the whole change of fortunes theme at the end has little umph.