Tom Strini

Skylight Holiday Cruise for “H.M.S. Pinafore”

By - Nov 17th, 2010 09:26 pm
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Alicia Berneche as Josephine, Gary Briggle (back) as Porter, and John Muriello as Captain Corcoran. Skylight Opera Theatre photo.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore opened in London as a smash hit in 1878. Soon after, the piece opened in New York and launched a Pinafore craze nationwide, as versions of the operetta opened in cities and towns across America. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, except when the imitators don’t pay roylaties. G&S found themselves trapped in a loophole of international copyright law and were powerless to sue the miscreants.

“Something like 150 companies were doing Pinafore in the United States,” said Bill Theisen, artistic director of the Skylight Opera Theatre, one of the great G&S companies in the world. “Gilbert and Sullivan were furious. That’s why they opened Pirates of Penzance in New York instead of London — to establish U.S. copyright.”

Theisen knows his G&S. He’s directing the latest Skylight Pinafore, which opens Friday (Nov. 19) at the Broadway Theatre Center.  He directed the last Skylight Pinafore, too, back in 2000, as a guest director. He’s done it with several other companies around the country, and he was in it as a young Skylight performer back in the day.

He started his career in a Skylight holiday Mikado in 1981.

Colm Fitzmaurice as Ralph Rackstraw, with Alicia Berneche. Skylight Opera Theatre photo.

“From about 1977 to 1981, we did a G&S at Vogel Hall hall for the holidays,” he said. “It was a great thing. Not that I want to do that every year now, but I wanted to revive that feeling. I personally love Pinafore. It’s a sweet story with enjoyable music. It feels right for the season.”

And yet, Pinafore is not exactly sentimental. It’s more a send-up of the conventions of sentiment; Gilbert’s words and Sullivan’s music have ways of engendering warm feelings and ironically deflating them. The jokes are on us as much as on the wacky characters. What barbs the story has have to do with British class distinctions. The plot turns on the love between Ralph Rackstraw, a common sailor, and Josephine, the Captain’s daughter. Impossible under the British caste system; good thing for the lovers that G&S kept a deus ex machina handy.

As often as Theisen has revisited this piece, he still enjoys tinkering with it. For this staging, he has beefed up the role of Cousin Hebe, the intrusive distant cousin of Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty.

Theisen explained that the actress who was to play the role in the 1878 premiere dropped out at the last minute. Gilbert hastily cast a singer, who refused to speak the dialog. So he cut it.

“Hebe ends up marrying Sir Joseph, and she has almost the last word in the show,” Theisen pointed out.

And yet we barely know her. So he’s rounding out the character and clearing up the relationships by re-inserting the missing bits.

“We’re throwing in a few holiday surprises, too,” Theisen said, without revealing any of them. “But mostly, we’re doing the piece as written.”

Theisen, to a great extent, plans his season around available talent. Four of his favorite G&S players were available, and that as much as anything explains why Pinafore will dock at the Broadway Theatre Center Nov. 19-Dec. 19.

John Muriello and Gary Briggle have not only appeared in several G&S shows at the Skylight, they portrayed Gilbert and Sullivan in Dale Gutzman’s play about the team, which the Skylight staged in its Studio Theatre last May. Muriello will play Captain Corcoran and Briggle will play Sir Joseph. The sparkling Alicia Berneche, a Skylight favorite for some years, now, will sing the ingenue role, Josephine. Colm Fitzmaurice, Nanki-Poo in the company’s most recent Mikado, will play the dashing, ardent Ralph Rackstraw. Deborah Fields, Buttercup here 10 years ago, is back again as the sundries seller with a secret.

Music director Richard Carsey has refined the necessity of orchestral reduction — the Skylight’s pit is tiny — to an art. Carsey got the idea adding guitar and accordion to the mix. Why? Sailors often brought these instruments to sea.

“The accordion and guitar make a lot of sense, and they add a lot of charm,” Theisen said.

If you’re out of charm, you’re out of G&S.

H.M.S. Pinafore opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 19, and runs through Dec. 19 at the Broadway Theatre Center main stage, the Cabot Theater, 158 N. Broadway. Tickets are $22.50-$65; call the BTC box office, 414-291-7800, or visit the Skylight’s website.

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