HMS Pinafore Goes Adrift

Lamplighters nails the music but misses on the theatrics.

To borrow a fraction of a phrase from one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s other classics, their 1878 operetta HMS Pinafore is the very model of a well-worn favorite It’s a lyrical delight, from “I’m Called Little Buttercup” down to the bombastic “He is an Englishman” refrain, and it’s packed with keen satire about the arbitrariness of social class, with an amusingly implausible twist ending. But in the Lamplighters Music Theatre production currently sailing around the bay, this particular favorite is definitely showing signs of wear.

Lamplighters has revisited the decks of the Pinafore regularly ever since the company began in 1952, performing it most recently in 2004, and now opens its 55th season with yet another trip on the good ship, embodied in a handsome multilevel set by Peter Crompton. The production opened last weekend at the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, moves to the Napa Valley Opera House this weekend, and winds up at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts next week.

A top-notch orchestra, conducted by George Thomson, and strong singing all around make the songs as delightful as they should be. Particularly noteworthy are Jonathan Spencer as Captain Corcoran, who delivers songs such as “I Am the Captain of the Pinafore” with just the right level of gusto, and Jennifer Ashworth, whose lovely soprano as his daughter Josephine gives goose bumps at times.

Sir Arthur Sullivan is therefore well served in the Lamplighters production, but W.S. Gilbert doesn’t quite get his due. Their comic operas wouldn’t have nearly as much staying power as they have if they weren’t so funny, and artistic director Barbara Heroux’ staging is relatively humdrum in that respect. The pacing is slack between songs, and even during musical numbers there could stand to be more going on onstage.

Despite a clever entrance out of an unfolding crate, Katy Daniel is colorless as entrepreneurial Little Buttercup, keeper of the secret plot device. Though tenor Jonathan Smucker is as able a tenor as his romantic hero Ralph Rackstraw is a seaman, there’s no chemistry between him and the captain’s daughter he loves so desperately. Nor does the social satire in the gulf between their stations really come across, especially in Josephine’s mild wavering between true love and ingrained snobbery.

Baritone Behrend Eilers is amusing as the despised voice of doom Dick Deadeye, but because he’s not really all that ghoulish, some of the humor of his continually being ignored in favor of the equally qualified but cuter Ralph is lost, and the business of everyone finding what he has to say disproportionately shocking simply because he’s ugly should be funnier than it is.

Fortunately, F. Lawrence Ewing is very funny as Sir Joseph Porter, “the ruler of the Queen’s Navy,” foppish in the extreme, and if his exaggeratedly plummy diction intrudes somewhat into the musicality of “I Am the Monarch of the Sea,” he livens things up so much that it’s hard to begrudge it. Sometimes others are also priceless when he’s around, as when Ashworth tries to keep up with his dancing in “Never Mind the Why and Wherefore.”

His ill-advised wooing of the captain’s daughter (who unbeknown to him is in love with common sailor Ralph) occasions the only real anachronisms in the production, the add-on line “Heck of a job, Corky,” and the unfurling of a “Mission Accomplished” banner. The latter is a mildly amusing touch, and certainly appropriate to the theme of incompetence in high places, but Berkeley Opera did the same banner gag (in Italian) for its Aïda only a few weeks ago. When everyone’s making the same joke, it’s probably too easy.

It’s greatly to Heroux’ credit that she trusts Sullivan’s music and Gilbert’s wit enough not to try to “reinvent” Pinafore. It’s a thoroughly period production (with the aforementioned exceptions) with credible period costumes by John C. Gilkerson. It’s especially pleasing to see, or rather to hear, that Lamplighters paid a great deal of attention to the music part of the equation. It would just be nice if it could have spared more hands on deck for the theatrical aspect.

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