Pinafore on an Old Tack

H.M.S. Pinafore directed by Greg Delawie at the Loeb, Dec. 5,6,7,8,9

THE HARVARD Gilbert and Sullivan Players have carted out the old sets, hoisted the sails, and launched yet another H.M.S. Pinafore onto the very receptive waters of the public. Like the countless productions of Gilbert and Sullivan's charmer that have preceded this one, it finds an audience predisposed in its favor, ready to accept it uncritically.

These Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are delightful little bonbons, really. They appeal to the Anglophile in all of us. Like the imported BBC television shows so popular today, they prey on the transatlantic inferiority complex that leaves most Americans rolling their eyes at anyone who flashes a British accent. The Loeb production unashamedly squeezes every drop out of this tendency, even playing "God Save the Queen" before the overture.

But you really can't blame the people involved in this production for reducing Sir William Gilbert's venomous social satire to the level of Broadway musical comedy. That's happened over the decades, and there's nothing any single director can do to change it. Audiences want their G & S lovable, and until someone comes along to persuade them otherwise, that's the way they'll get it.

But even after its teeth have been pulled, Gilbert and Sullivan can be wonderfully entertaining--if the musicians and cast put everything they've got into the invigorating score. The Pinafore at the Loeb, despite its abundance of musical and dramatic talent, just doesn't have the energy. It's as though the Gilbert and Sullivan Players took one look at the old standard, let out a long sigh, and resigned themselves to cranking out a competent show, nothing more.

Not surprisingly, the audience didn't seem anywhere nearly as bored as the cast with the whole thing. The story of "The Lass that Loved the Sailor" below her station--propelled by Gilbert's jabs at pomp and middle-class mediocrity--still fills an evening. But it was the deliberate self-conscious irony that made something out of Pinafore's obviously inane plot--the hundreds of little jokes in the script that combine to take all the starch out of the Victorian stuffed shirt.

GREG DELAWIE'S direction at the Loeb completely misses its chance to underscore the irony, leaving poor Gilbert's words to stand or fall on their wit alone. That they could stand at all is a tribute to the universality of his satire. No one remembers W.H. Smith any more (the newspaper-stand magnate Gilbert caricatures as Sir Joseph Porter)--except the tourists to Great Britain who still see his name on every other newsstand. But no one can miss this general broadside against sinecures of any kind.

Once you give up looking for any idea behind a Gilbert and Sullivan performance, you can only hope that there will be individual singers good enough to hold the show together. The Loeb cast is near-perfect--the overall quality of singing is strikingly high--even better, the cast and chorus remain completely intelligible throughout the evening. This is the best insurance possible for a G & S show; as long as Gilbert's words come through, laughs will follow.

Beyond making themselves understood, however, some of the cast falter, unsure whether to play the operetta utterly deadpan--letting the audience laugh at these ridiculous characters--or to reveal that they, too, know the whole thing is a joke. Catherine Weary's sparkling Josephine holds the stage through sheer vocal perfection alone--she could probably handle Puccini with ease. Donald Hovey's Ralph Rackstraw, too, has a full, clean tenor. Now, admittedly there isn't all that much anyonecan make of the milquetoast roles of the love-struck couple; but both Weary and Hovey shuffle between dead seriousness and deadpan tongue-in-cheek.

The most consistent performances are William Falk's as Josephine's father, Captain Corcoran, and Patty Woo's as Buttercup. Both seem to know instinctively that they have to keep a lot of activity on stage, and their duet, "Things Are Seldom What They Seem," was the best number of the evening. Weary may sing better, but Falk and Woo tiptoe, mug and enliven their business the way the whole cast might have.

Gilbert's Sir Joseph Porter is his great creation in Pinafore, the character everyone remembers. But the pompous First Lord of the Admiralty, tailed by his drone horde of matronly relatives, fussily insisting that officers and crew "refrain from language strong," should be a solid character nonetheless. He's the vehicle for Gilbert's satiric venom, and he should be just respectable enough for us to enjoy laughing at him. Jonathan A. Prince turns Porter into a lovable old Codger, who you'd help across the street or stage if you could stop cracking up for a moment. So much for social satire. The sets by Cindy Ruskin are good, the musical direction by David Crowe nothing special. The orchestra keeps rolling along, with only the brass contributing occasionally bad noises.

EXCELLENT singing and enunciation keep this Pinaforeafloat, through scenes and scenes of half-hearted dancing and stage business. Not until the middle of the second act does the cast loosen up, and give a taste of what the entire show could have been like. In the traditional encores after the trio, "Never Mind the Why and Wherefore," Prince, Falk and Weary suddenly perk up and begin to command the Loeb stage. It doesn't matter that many of their routines are classic D'Oyly Carte fare--they start to look like they're having fun. The rest of the act, through the big finale, benefitted.

Whether it was the director who couldn't motivate his cast, or the cast who were just a little bored by this warhouse, the Gilbert and Sullivan Players took Pinafore for granted; they didn't put in the energy it needs. Theirs is still an over-whelmingly competent production, with superb singing--one worth seeing of you lovePinafore, love Gilbert and Sullivan, or just love watching all those funny, cute Englishmen acting so very English. But then, the Loeb is sold out already. Ironically, enough people love Pinafore as a harmless trifle that it can be de-fanged with impunity. Who would want to scare away all those big middle-class audiences by staging any "language strong," anyway?