By Lynn Venhaus
While many operas deal with tragic circumstances, Gilbert and Sullivan’s popular “H.M.S. Pinafore” does not, although it’s not entirely smooth sailing. The subtitle, “Or the Lass That Loved a Sailor,” should be your first clue that it’s a comic romp.
Union Avenue Opera’s light-hearted interpretation conjures up a refreshing sea breeze on the church stage, where they opened their 24th season. The characters are daffy, the romantic plot silly, and the melodies merry.
An air of familiarity abounds, and that’s because not only has the work been internationally beloved for 140 years, but also it played a major role in the development of modern musical theater.
In their Royal Navy garb and crisp summery frocks, the ensemble has a good time cavorting in the 19th century, aboard a dandy ship designed by Kyra Bishop Sanford with function and eye appeal in mind.
The cast appears comfortable with each other, but while director Eric Gibson went for a broad presentation, ramping up the farcical elements, the stage placement was rather ho-hum. Not enough was done to better position the large chorus – 12 eager performers. They look clumpy, another “park and bark” situation where there is little alternative, but you wish there was.
It helps that the ensemble sings their parts with good cheer. However, a small bit of dancing doesn’t go particularly well, as it looks like a free-for-all wedding reception, with some guests mimicking Elaine’s dancing on “Seinfeld.” They put forth an effort, and the attempt at the end fares better.
The operetta, set in the Victorian era, has a few zingers for society’s staid class customs. Librettist W.S. Gilbert takes jabs at England’s class system, its politics and what we now call The Peter Principle, people rising to authority for which they have no experience.
But mainly it’s a whirlwind of love, duty and honor, as we have mismatched couples who have predicaments get worse before they get better, with a few secrets and surprises ahead.
Captain Corcoran, played with gusto by Thomas Gunther, whose baritone was the best of the night, brings his daughter, Josephine (sweet-voiced soprano Leeann Schuering), aboard.
Although she is repelled to commit, Josephine is expected to say yes to a marriage proposal from Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, First Lord of the Admiralty (Steven Condy). Titles don’t make the man, but luxury is enticing. Porter has arrived with an entourage – aunts, cousins and sisters in tow.
Condy enjoys being insufferable in his pompous blowhard role. While Porter has no naval experience, he loves pontificating. He’ll tell you all about how he is ruler of the Queen’s Navy in song. Condy handles the speedy patter with aplomb. He is, however, a believer in the equality of humankind. Wait, what?
Well, this complicates matters. That way of thinking fortifies Josephine, who would rather marry seaman Ralph Rackstraw (sturdy Anthony Heinemann), who is – gasp – a commoner. Their love story drives the plot, and the couple is paired well.
In the meantime, another seaman, Dick Deadeye (Jacob Lassetter), is a gloomy bucket of doom, and throws wrenches into the goofy plot. He’s a despicable sort whose name fits, and Lassetter did not go as broad as other characters.
Little Buttercup, a dockside vendor, had come on the ship to sell items, and she gets mixed up in the plot, taking a shine to the Captain and letting folks know things might not be what they appear. Mezzo-soprano Katherine Calcamuggio is a delight in this colorful role, playing well off Gunther and others.
Erin Haupt is snooty Cousin Hebe while Randell McGee as Bob Becket and Jason Mallory as Bill Bobstay also provide good support.
Everything must happen quickly, so there’s a farcical element to the action, and the jovial cast elicited many laughs from an appreciative audience. Even though the opera is in English, the text supertitles designed by Philip Touchette were still employed, and necessary.
Conductor Scott Schoonover and the 19-member orchestra were in fine form. Lighting designer Andy Vieluf’s work was noteworthy, as was Teresa Doggett’s costume designs. The prevalence of white and teal in the woman’s outfits was quite fetching.
This bright summer confection was an amiable way to kick off the Union Avenue Opera’s three-show season, a nice change of pace if you are in the mood for frothy fun. “HMS Pinafore” may be an old chestnut but its good humor pleased the modern-day crowd.
“H.M.S. Pinafore” performances are Friday and Saturday, July 6-7 and 13-14, at Union Avenue Christian Church,733 Union Boulevard. For more information about the opera company, visit www.unionavenueopera.org.