Review by Danny & Terry Gaisin
The first time we saw Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1881 operetta ‘HMS PINAFORE’, it was presented by a community theatre group that considered the lyrics remedial for folks with some speech challenges, and certainly singing was more fun than reciting tongue-twisters! The play has a strong but subtle message and denigrates ingrained British snobbism and oligarchic political attainment (think today’s White House). Stratford’s Lezlie Wade meticulously underscores the play’s comedic bent with impacting visual images; a creative and functional set, plus acute physical activity. Her choreographic utilization of the set’s two curved staircases will remind older individuals of the Busby Berkeley routines from the late fifties.
Wade’s set the opening in a naval hospital circa 1918, and then aboard the eponymous vessel itself via a creative scene changer. She is meticulous in manipulating the hyper-action on stage so that audience concentration is precisely where SHE feels most deserving. The blocking is effective and utilizes the somewhat small Avon stage most advantageously. Like Donna Feore, she too, insists on her charges being triple-threats…singers, dancers AND actors.
The hummable opening number with the gobs iterating life on ‘Blue water’ (the sea) has a memorable and familiar melody thus setting the mood for audience recognition and association. A charming Lisa Horner then introduces herself whose name may NOT be ‘Buttercup’, but so she is called. We meet the various crew members and their skipper – Steve Ross who is as funny (and talented) as he IS ‘Nicely-Nicely Johnson’ in his other repertory persona. The heroine of the plot is his daughter Josephine, and Jennifer Rider-Shaw (great name if she decides to participate in the other Ontario summer theatre Festival). She possesses a glorious soprano voice with amazing diction and perfect projection. Her suitor is able-seaman Mark Uhre. His rank also references his acting and splendid tenor voice. Both thespians exhibit eloquent facial expressions they incorporate to add emphasis to the dialogue being warbled.
The most satirized role is that of the Admiral Sir Joseph Porter, Knight of the Bath and holds the equivalent post of Secretary of the Navy – a rank that the great Winston Churchill held! Sir Joe travels with his ‘sisters, cousins, & aunts’, so that the play has a sufficient female chorus to balance the male crew. He has the oft-quoted educational aria about how to succeed in his world, i.e. brown-nose, suck-up, and avoid doing anything. This is Machiavellian apple-polishing taken to the ultimate.
The plots three relationship -oriented aspects deal with status and the barrier that a caste system puts between natural love and affinity. Good news… sometimes, (not only in the plot), individuals surmount class and background and like the muse & I, have a 54-year happy marriage! We were observed and approached post-curtain, by a theatre usher who noticed us semi-dancing along Downie Street to the ‘♫ When I was a lad ♪’ melody. In Stratford, such behavior is acceptable; even ‘de rigeuer’.
HMS PINAFORE is docked at the Avon Theatre until Oct. 21st.