H.M.S. Pinafore was the work that put W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan on the map: biting satire of Victorian England, superb, unusual composition for ostensibly mass-market entertainment, and Gilbert’s signature topsy-turvy whimsy, all gathered together in a crowd-pleasing production. Pinafore opened in 1878 and went for 571 performances, the second-longest of any musical theater piece to that time. Gilbert & Sullivan followed this international success with The Pirates of Penzance the next year and The Mikado in 1885.
From Friday March 25 through last Sunday at the Agassiz Theater, the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert & Sullivan Players presented their 60th-anniversary (diamond) production of H.M.S Pinafore, or, the Lass That Loved a Sailor. They did not disappoint: mostly cream, little skim milk. HRG&SP productions can be of remarkable quality, approaching professional-level, yet are put on almost entirely by undergraduates, and this one stood with their best.
Music Director Jacob Moscona is a senior, unusually so in that HRG&SP often attracts sophomores or juniors as music director, hoping to prove themselves in G&S before taking the helm of larger student efforts. Moscona, not using this production as just a steppingstone, put in the time and effort, recruiting a very competent orchestra and leading a uniformly rehearsed performance, with none of the intonation or tempo problems that have occasionally marred HRG&SP productions over the last decade. Moscona’s tempi were aggressive, a good choice in musical theater generally and this work especially, where languidness can rob the actors of momentum. Musicians might quibble that sometimes the pace was too fast, but with Gilbert and Sullivan it is better to err on the speedy side, so long as the performers can keep up. In that respect, orchestra and singers alike were all more than capable. Moscona also expertly tackled the sound balance issues the Agassiz Theater presents, restraining the orchestra so lyrics were audible and unleashing it for stunning sonic climaxes.
Gentle updating from the 1870s to the 1920s added unexpected visual flair without necessitating a wholesale reimagining of the work. The titular ship was conceived as a WWI battleship by set designer Evan Scheuckler and realized by technical director Katie Polik and her talented team, rather than the typical H.M.S. Victory lookalike. Also impressive was use of forced perspective to make the stage look and feel more expansive. Costume designer Julia Thomas’s crisp white uniforms, and especially the Chanel-inspired “beach-pajama”-clad chorus of Sir Joseph Porter’s sisters, cousins, and aunts, also reflected this visually inventive riff on such a familiar work.
Olivia Munk’s excellent stage direction elevated a mostly traditional setting of a mostly traditional work by tightening the characters beyond the letter of Gilbert’s somewhat leaky libretto. The trio in the middle of act 2 is an excellent example: Captain Corcoran (Ben Kelly), Sir Joseph Porter (Kevin Hilgartner), and Josephine (Olivia Miller) take shots from the captain’s flask during each refrain of “Never mind the why and wherefore,” and by the end of the song the captain is drunk and Sir Joseph passed out—which adds surprising verisimilitude to the later scene where the captain, now belligerently drunk and furious, curses loudly, waking and drawing especial fury from the now hungover Sir Joseph, who appears onstage wearing dark sunglasses and holding an icepack to his head. Other cleverly executed character moments broke the fourth wall tastefully, as at the beginning of the act when Kelly’s captain dejectedly attempts to accompany himself on mandolin, and after a few unsatisfactory measures takes a swig from his flask, gives up, and tells the orchestra to play the accompaniment instead. In isolation, these directorial choices are cute moments that add extra humor, but taken together they complement characters and plot in original and poignant ways.
Munk’s astute directorial choices wouldn’t hold water without talented and rehearsed actors carrying them out, and this production had perhaps the most uniformly high-caliber acting that HRG&SP has offered in many years. Kelly’s Captain Corcoran brilliantly established the dynamic arc of his character, although his acting did seem somehow too American, more Lerner and Loewe than G&S. Josephine is an extremely difficult role to play, as it demands great dynamism in both singing and acting: it can be tempting for a good singer to simply ‘park and bark’ technically demanding songs like “Sorry her lot” and “The hours creep on apace.” Miller steadfastly resisted that temptation, delivering excellence both vocally and dramatically. Hilgartner has been one of HRG&SP’s regular patter-singers for the last several years, and this is unquestionably his best performance yet, delivering a character full of hilarious tics true to, but not found in, the libretto, while at the same time not losing himself so much to comic caricature that he couldn’t be credibly unsavory, even threatening. And the characters’ visual designs were perfectly in line; simple details like hair & makeup designer Zoë Burgard’s choice to give Sir Joseph red circles under his eyes provided both his comic frailty and his creepiness an extra edge.
Although Sullivan gave his tenor lead, Ralph Rackstraw, beautiful spring melody, Gilbert gave him little to play with. Such characters as The Sorcerer’s Alexis Pointdextre and Ruddigore’s Richard Dauntless have subversive, even villainous sides to explore, Rackstraw is a straight-up heroic tenor with little development. Alex Raun played him in beautiful voice and with great stage business (including convincingly romancing a mop head), but the part is overshadowed by the more interesting Captain, Josephine, and Sir Joseph.
Minor roles in student productions with big casts are often prone to sloppy acting and sloppier singing, but in this production every one of them held to the standard the leads set. Jake Corvino’s Boatswain Bill Bobstay and Erik Fliegrauf’s Carpenter’s Mate Bob Becket were well-acted and beautifully in tune despite some challenging stage business during their acapella trio “A British Tar” with Rackstraw, and Laura Peterson’s Buttercup was memorably flippant during her introductory song “I’m called little Buttercup.” It’s a shame that the role of Cousin Hebe is so spare, as Arianna Paz made every moment count. Brad Latilla-Campbell played Dick Deadeye as a conventional villain, well-acted and surprisingly well-sung through a consistent and effective salt-of-the-ocean lower-class English accent. The chorus was memorable for snappy and entertaining background action, and for tight choreography perfectly chosen to fit the drama and the music.
The production was not without flaw. The choice to costume and make Buttercup up to look significantly younger than her character as traditionally played was puzzling. Despite his many other talents, Kelly’s Captain Corcoran didn’t sell the same chemistry onstage with his ship’s crew or with Buttercup as he did with Josephine and Sir Joseph. And the brilliant forced-perspective design of the ship itself made the extremely phony and blandly lit skysheet jarring, although this may owe more to the Agassiz stage’s limitations than to the skill of set designer Scheuckler or lighting designer Yasmin Yacoby. In any case none of these minor drawbacks seriously affected the production as a whole.
Overall, HRG&SP’s producers Allegra Caldera, Barra Peak, and Trevor Mullin and their fabulous cast, orchestra, and production staff have much to be proud of: ring the merry bells onboard ship for a well-executed traditional and classic production, with plenty of originality to keep the old warhorse of fresh for 60 more years.