Surprisingly the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s production of HMS Pinafore marks my introduction to Gilbert and Sullivan (although I have a DVD of Anthony Warlow in Penzance sitting on my shelf that I’ve been meaning to watch for years). Anxiously the friend I went with, a Gilbert and Sullivan fan from a young age, wondered how I would enjoy it, but I have to admit that I was never in much doubt. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which draws obvious inspiration from Victorian operetta, is one of my favourite musicals, and I adore Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which offers a similarly comic look at English social class structure and even has a plot twist involving a mix-up with a baby. Sure enough, I enjoyed Stratford’s vivid and witty production of HMS Pinafore, which features an excellent cast and a rather stunning set.
The visual appeal of this production is undeniable. The set, designed by Douglas Paraschuk, includes two swinging doors for entrances and exits, two levels, and an entire deck of a ship. It’s an impressive design with appropriate grandeur, that is complimented by vivid period costumes worn by Buttercup (Lisa Horner) and Josephine (Jennifer Ryder-Shaw).
The plot involves Captain Corcoran (Brad Ruby at this performance, the role is usually played by Steve Ross) intending to wed his daughter Josephine to the high-ranking, and much the elder, Sir Joseph Porter (Laurie Murdoch). Although the match would be an advantageous one for Josephine, she is already in love with lowly seaman Ralph Rackshaw (Mark Uhre).
The greatest strength of this production is its universally strong cast. Laurie Murdoch steals the show as Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, his performance including a popping of the cheeks tic, which is funnier than described, and an admirable ability to keep a straight face through the hijinks going on around him.
Other standouts are Jennifer Rider-Shaw, playing a winning Josephine with charm and a beautiful soprano, and Mark Uhre (recently of Les Miserables Broadway) as Ralph Rackshaw, who shows off comedic chops I didn’t know he had. His comic timing is excellent and he has a surprising gift for physical comedy, as well as a strong baritone that’s well suited to the score.
The performance I saw had a few understudies. Although it’s difficult to believe that anyone could dislike Marcus Nance, his Dick Deadeye was believably morose. It’s always nice to see Nance in a larger role, but I suspect this came at the expense of hearing his rich bass anchor “He is an Englishman” in his normal role as Bill Bobstay; the Boatswain’s Mate, and this loss was keenly felt.
Most of the issues I had with this show came from direction. The framing device of setting HMS Pinafore as a production being performed in a British estate hospital on New Year’s Eve during the First World War, was completely unnecessary and adds nothing to the show, particularly since it is never referred to during the production and comes back only briefly at the end. The constant movement of the piece does lend itself nicely to physical comedy and takes full advantage of the set, but at times the production feels busy and over-choreographed, as though no character is allowed to sit or stand still for more than a few seconds. At least for me, a Gilbert and Sullivan newcomer, it made it difficult to know who and what to look at and which actions and plot points were significant.
Still Pinafore, much like The Importance of Being Earnest, stands the test of time. More than a century later, it retains its wit to still amuse and enchant audiences with its gentle satire of social classes. It’s not a show that will make you think, but HMS Pinafore is a fun diversion well executed by a talented cast, and if you don’t walk out humming “He is an Englishman” you’re either remarkably immune to earworms, or you haven’t watched that particular episode of The West Wing nearly as much as I have. I look forward to seeing more Gilbert and Sullivan productions in the future.
HMS Pinafore plays until October 21, 2017 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Avon Theatre.
Photo of Laurie Murdoch, Mark Uhre, Jennifer Rider-Shaw, and company by Cylla von Tiedemann.