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Celebrating their 50th anniversary, the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players (HRGSP) whiz through “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “Trial by Jury,” performed back-to-back with energy, grace, and abundant humor.
Whether Gilbert and Sullivan are names you’ve only heard uttered by your parents, or if you’ve performed their operettas since you were little, these two dead Victorian Englishmen have a lot more to offer than their dreary names suggest. Directed by Charlie I. Miller ’08 and produced by Jeremy R. Steinemann ’08, Jessica A. Bloom ’07, and Xin Wei Ngiam ’07, with musical direction by Ben E. Green ’06, “H.M.S. Pinafore” runs until Dec. 16 at the Agassiz Theatre.
The shorter “Trial by Jury,” a courtroom comedy in which a would-be bride sues her former groom for breaking off their engagement, opens the performance. As the Judge (Arlo D. Hill ’08) and Usher (Evan D. Siegel ’07) drool like idiots at the sight of the dolled-up Plaintiff (Christine K. L. Bendorf ’10), the jury heckles the Defendant (Roy A. Kimmey ’09), and no one questions the unfairness of the trial, not even the Defendant himself, who looks like the sleazy, grown-up version of a sullen child. The company plays it straight when the Honorable Judge stumbles onstage with ruffled clothing and a flask hidden beneath his robes.
With many ensemble songs for both male and female voices, “Trial by Jury” gives the women’s chorus its best material of the night as a gaggle of bridesmaids tripping over each other to get to the would-be groom. Yet the members of the all-male jury do a better job of distinguishing themselves from the group when they make faces to attract the Plaintiff’s attentions.
Short, sweet, and snappy, this piece warms up the audience—much like opening act in a concert—for the equally joyful opera that follows. As a starter, “Trial by Jury” is overwhelmed by the greatness of the next.
The start of “H.M.S. Pinafore” reveals a gleaming set of wood paneling and white paint—the perfect model of a well-scrubbed vessel. Designer Blase E. Ur opens the small stage with two symmetrical white staircases that lead up to a second level, providing the crew of sailors has ample space to dash around. This upper level also hosts the orchestra, whose musical director, Green, sports a naval captain’s hat—all visible to the audience.
It is rare to find a show where all of the principals are great—“H.M.S. Pinafore” nearly achieves just this.
Noah Van Niel ’08 plays Ralph, a sailor who has fallen for the captain’s daughter Josephine (Chelsey J. Forbess ’07). In a comedy where most characters are cartoons, Van Niel portrays Ralph with sincerity and depth. He sings with feeling and a face that begs for sympathy, winning the hearts of the crew.
Hill returns as Captain Corcoran, Commander of the H.M.S. Pinafore, another slightly ridiculous older man, though a somewhat more complex one this time. In “My Gallant Crew,” one of my favorite songs of the night, the sailors welcome their captain as a much-loved coach. Throughout the opera, Hill’s expression wavers between happiness and anxiety—fitting for the slightly-out-of-touch, nervous father of the desired Josephine.
Forbess as Josephine is a wonderful soprano, but her character nonetheless falls flat in Act I—perhaps because it is difficult to distinguish her words as she sings. But Forbess comes to life in Act II, going beyond the cartoonish aspect of Gilbert and Sullivan to portray Josephine as a character with emotion and intelligence.
The best performance of the evening comes from Brian C. Polk ’09 in the role of the Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., First Lord of the Admiralty, whose extended title reveals all you need to know about his character. Polk gives Sir Joseph a dynamic face and a manner of self-satisfied delight which, along with Sir Joseph’s firm belief that all Englishmen are equal, except himself, create a character who is irresistibly charming despite his obnoxious manner.
Miller provides lively choreography for his all-male crew of sailors, who start off the act with their strong voices and are onstage for most of the show. Members of the ensemble manage to stand out—some as particularly graceful dancers, others with British accents—while maintaining a general demeanor that’s both tough and flirtatious.
With such a strong first act, Act II is a bit of an anticlimax, except for the trio “Nevermind the Why and Wherefore.” Polk, Hill, and Forbess match each other in jolly satisfaction, as they plot out their romantic futures—and it’s delightful to watch them gleefully dance together.
The only downside is the lack of leading roles for women—but that’s unavoidable coming from Victorian England. Costume designer Casey M. Lurtz ’07 draws attention to these neglected ladies in the chorus by dressing them in shockingly bright and colorful costumes. Caroline A. Jennings ’09 makes the most of her small solos and stands out as the principal voice of the female ensemble.
It’s refreshing to see a piece that pays homage to the original and saves its energy for making the piece as good as it can be, rather than reinventing it.
So stop complaining about the Harvard social life and try something new, like pregaming with a little opera. You may stumble out of the theater surprisingly relaxed and happy.
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