HMS Pinafore: A Most Agreeable Ship of Fools
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., July 7, 2000
A Most Agreeable Ship of Fools
Helm Fine Arts Center,
through July 8
Running Time: 1 hr, 55 min
Love means never having to say you're sorry ... that you're a lowly sailor when your sweetheart is a highborn captain's daughter. Such is the romantic lesson of HMS Pinafore, the enduring operetta by Topsy-Turvy collaborators W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan. Its hero, Ralph Rackstraw, is a seaman of humble origin serving aboard the title vessel, yet he refuses to be outclassed, as it were, in his pursuit of the fair Josephine, daughter to the ship's commanding officer and thus a maiden "much above his station." Love conquers all; class dismissed.
The lesson comes through clearly, if not always loudly, in the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Austin's current revival of this satire of rank. Director Ralph MacPhail Jr. keeps a steady eye on Gilbert's targets -- the English elite for whom class was all -- and aims virtually all the production's resources at their puffed-up snootiness. Not for this Virginia scholar the extraneous conceptual overlays or infusions of schtick employed by some latter-day directors in an effort to make G&S' 19th-century confections sweeter to modern audiences. As in his two previous outings for the society, MacPhail trusts in the virtues of G&S tradition, i.e., a light comic touch, the better to keep heavy-handed actors from upstaging the words and music.
Here, MacPhail might be said to be fighting class with class. He mocks the English obsession with class in a most pleasingly refined manner: Chorus members make stately processions across stage, ending in arrangements as formal as those in a royal garden. Leading characters deliver solos and duets to the audience with the courtly directness of peers addressing Parliament. It's genteel to an extreme, which not only suits the mannerly behavior of the characters to a tee but nicely accentuates the humor in their behavior.
There are times when the show is a bit too genteel for its own good. Performers occasionally underplay the physical comedy to the extent that it's almost lost in the large open auditorium of the Helm Fine Arts Center's Temple Family Theatre. And a fair amount of Gilbert's witty libretto is lost due to a lack of volume on the part of certain cast members. No matter how delicately music director and conductor Jeffrey Jones-Ragona and his compact orchestra provide accompaniment -- and they are a diligent ensemble -- these singers' voices disappear behind the instruments.
Still, the production's reserve serves it well for the most part. In the person of Dan Giradot -- whose Nanki-Poo in The Mikado two years ago is remembered fondly -- Ralph Rackstraw is the very model of a modest-mannered gentleman, a fellow so staunch that he'd put a bullet through his head rather than live without his beloved and so polite you suspect he'd apologize to the bullet beforehand. Giradot magnifies Ralph's virtue just enough to make it comical while still retaining our affection. As the woman he adores, Claire Vangelisti is winningly demure and charmingly troubled by her dilemma, to be true to love or to her position. At the end of her solo "The hours creep on apace," when Josephine asks the gods of love and reason, "Which shall my heart obey," Vangelisti's voice carves an operatic arc of anguish in the air that is pure and lovely. The modesty of this couple's ardor adds to its appeal.
Only when performers with accomplished comedic chops take the stage do you find yourself wishing the production would loosen up a bit. In numerous productions for the society, Janette Jones has proven herself a formidable force for laughs; here, she takes on the role of Little Buttercup, the sundries seller with the big secret, and glides through it, smoothly tossing off bits of comic business in sly gestures and looks. Make no mistake: Her performance is beguiling -- especially when she twirls those gypsy arms -- but we know she's capable of so much more. Likewise, Frank Delvy assays Captain Corcoran with a straight-backed dignity totally befitting the character but lacking that Delvy penchant for lunacy.
Still, when all is said and done, MacPhail is probably wise to rein in the physical comedy. Showpiece numbers such as the trio "Never mind the why and wherefore" are invitations for big gags, and nothing sinks a laugh faster than overblown schtick. As it is, that particular number comes off smartly here, with Vangelisti, Delvy, and Jim Hunter -- a bubble-headed Sir Joseph, Lord of the Admiralty -- simply and briskly doing vocal and physical do-si-dos as they contend with encore after exhausting encore. The bits are executed with such deftness that they never have a chance to drag down the comedy; the number bobs along on the words and music.
That image suits the production overall, too. On this, the G&S Society's fourth voyage on the Pinafore, the boat sits light on the water, rolling along merrily, a most agreeable ship of fools.