Set Sail Aboard Gilbert & Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore”

Most full-scale musical shows run several weeks of previews before submitting to critical evaluation; some even longer, with mixed results (cue “Spiderman”). The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) production of “H.M.S. Pinafore” opened cold last week and hit its stride in about ten minutes. The venerable company, founded in 1974 by Albert Bergeret, who still directs and conducts (including this one), maintains a performance-ready repertory of the thirteen surviving Savoy Operas created by the namesake team. (A couple more were never published.) While some of the more familiar titles dominate the roster, all thirteen are intermittently staged in NYC and on tour.

True to their founding mission of “giving vitality to the…legacy of Gilbert and Sullivan through performance and education,” NYGASP is recognized as the Gold Standard of Gilbert & Sullivan production companies, exemplified by the company’s widely acclaimed US and Canadian tours as well as their lauded appearances at G & S Festivals in England.

The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players aboard the “H.M.S. Pinafore” [Photos: Danny Bristoll]

“H.M.S. Pinafore” is one of the most popular Savoy operas, and this production, running only through January 8 at Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse, does it proud. Faithful in tone and design to the original style, there is nonetheless a subtle touch to the staging and performance that makes it if not of our time, definitely for our time. The original orchestrations and designer Gail Wofford’s period-perfect 1880s costumes support the acting style, which, while dated, allows for a knowing wink or two along the way.

Sub-titled “The Lass That Loved A Sailor” and set aboard the title ship, that is what “Pinafore” is about. Able Seaman (common deckhand) Ralph Rackstraw (Cameron Smith) is in love with Josephine (Michelle Seipel), who, being the ship captain’s daughter, is a class or two above his rank. Besides, Josephine has been betrothed by her father (co-director choreographer David Auxier) to Sir Joseph Porter (James Mills) the decidedly elder First Lord of the Admiralty.

The Lass (Michelle Seipel) That Loved A Sailor (Cameron Smith)

Despairing of his lovelorn situation, Ralph is saved from self-annihilation by Josephine’s declaration of love. The pompous First Lord’s assumption that Josephine’s lament about prohibitive class distinction refers to his over hers, which he dismisses as immaterial, comes back to bite him. And, it will surprise no one with even a passing familiarity with Gilbert & Sullivan, a late revealed screwup by a former nursemaid leads to an all ‘round happy ending. (Throughout there are nods to the absurdity and a sprinkling of liberties with the text. A telephone bit in act two? In 1878? Why not? G & S has long been in the public domain.)

That the cast list and the orchestra personnel each number twenty-five may be a coincidence, but that impressive number is a testament to the company’s commitment to its namesakes’ catalog. Sullivan’s score (Gilbert was the librettist) is variously lyrical (solo arias), upbeat (duets and trios), and sprightly (ensemble numbers, always a NYGASP highlight, here replete with twirling umbrellas and jaunty hornpipe).

Nearly all the performers are NYGASP veterans, their familiarity with the material on rich display: Ms. Seipel’s  “Sorry Her Lot” and “The Hours Creep On Apace” are especially lovely, and the duets with Mr. Smith’s Ralph are first-rate. (Gotta’ love one title: “Refrain, Audacious Tar”.) The ship captain and the First Lord divvy up the comic numbers, with both Mr. Auxier and Mr. Mills in top form. Joined by Ms. Seipel, the “Never Mind The Why And Wherefore” trio is a high-energy vaudeville-esq delight – with an admonishment of the conductor’s reluctance to end it: “Don’t make me come down there,” one of the spent three warns.

Angela Christine Smith is in fine voice as the dotty Little Buttercup, and Lance Olds is a properly villainous Dick Deadeye (although outfitting him with a hunched back is a questionable choice in 2022).  High praise, as mentioned above, to the ensemble of “sailors, First Lord’s sisters, cousins and aunts,” whose strong vocals and snappy appearance are the backbone of the dedicated company.

The “Pinafore” finalé. (The little fellow down front is NYGASP founder Albert Bergeret’s six-year-old grandson Dante, who has a couple of nifty scene-stealing cameos.)

There is an episode of “Mayberry RFD” where Floyd the Barber explains a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta to Goober: “It’s got a lot of ginger,” he says. Well, the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ “H.M.S. Pinafore or, The Lass That Loved A Sailor” is a feast of ginger: top-flight musical entertainment from yesteryear that has aged like a fine wine in NYGASP’s custody.

Through January 8 at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, East 68th Street, NYC. Remaining performances are Sat Jan 7 at 2pm and 7:30pm and Sun Jan 8 at 2pm. For tickets ($30-$110):

[Playwright/lyricist Sir William Gilbert’s notorious rudeness kept Queen Victoria from knighting him with composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. (Gilbert was knighted after Victoria’s death.) The genteel Sullivan, composer of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” carried on a 24-year liaison with a married American woman (among other affairs) and died of a heart ailment in 1900 at age 58. The irascible Gilbert died in 1911 at 75 from a heart attack suffered after diving into a lake to save a drowning girl. The original Odd Couple?]


Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway