Tom Strini

Skylight’s Pinafore smart and saucey

By - Nov 21st, 2010 12:32 am
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Gary Briggle as Sir Joseph in the Skylight’s H.M.S. Pinafore. Skylight Opera photos by Mark Frohna.

Saturday evening, Gary Briggle sang When I Was a Lad, the tale of his character’s ascension from office boy to First Lord of the Admiralty. He put a Jackie Gleason move on the words “the Queen’s Navy” — clutch the side, a little hop, a comic lunge.

If you know this number, among the most famous from Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, you know that Sir Joseph Porter sings “Queen’s Navy” a lot. Every time, Briggle did that funny little step. And as he hit other repeated phrases, he devised little gestures and steps for each of them. You could see a dance assemble itself before your eyes, a dance tied to words but also to Sullivan’s chipper music, a dance at once ingenious, picturesque and hilarious. Briggle, light and springy on his feet, sold it with great panache.

I don’t know how much of that was Briggle’s idea and how much of it came from director/choreographer Bill Theisen. But that sort of clever staging permeates this Skylight Opera Theatre Pinafore.

The Skylight’s Pinafore crew. Skylight photo by Mark Frohna.

Theisen certainly dreamed up the bit of Stomp-style rhythm drill for the Pinafore‘s crewmen. That smart, entertaining, well-executed interlude freshened a very familiar show, and that wasn’t the only new trick up Theisen’s sleeve. (I won’t give any more away, but I will give you this hint: When you think Dick Deadeye — played by the wonderfully gruff Robb Smith — think Frau Blücher by-the-sea.)

Briggle and John Muriello, as Captain Corcoran, grasp G&S style — which is to say, stylization — utterly. It’s all about refinement to the point of absurdity and refinement undercut by equally absurd human impulses that crack the shell. The Lord and the Captain put on brave fronts to convince the world they’re in control; they’re not. These superb comic actors render the whiplash highs and lows in perfect scale and rhythm and make them funny again and again.

Soprano Alicia Berneche played Josephine, another G&S type: the dainty, fainting ingenue laced with unseemly desire and a tendency to drop courtly pretense under stress. Berneche is adorable, energetic, a fearless clown and a brilliant singer. I’ve heard and admired her often, but she was at the very top of her form Saturday. She sounded sweet, clear and effortless, even when Sullivan took her very high.

Muriello, Berneche and Briggle, brilliant in Pinafore. Skylight photo by Mark Frohna.

Berneche played opposite Colm Fitzmaurice’s Ralph Rackstraw. Fitzmaurice, too, understands the G&S leading man and fills the bill: Stalwart, ardent, sincere, handsome, and not all that bright. At the end, of course, through a corrected accident at birth, Rackstraw becomes the captain and the captain a common seaman. Fitzmaurice made the transformation of class distinction immediate, complete and funny. His tenor, however, sounded threadbare and strained throughout.

Deborah Fields made a quintessential Buttercup, looking as round and pink as the sailors describe her, carrying herself with just the bold presence the part requires and phrasing her songs broadly and generously in a rich mezzo. Theisen restored some lost dialog to beef up the character of Cousin Hebe, and I’m sure Rhonda Ray Busch made him glad he did. Busch was funny on her own, and her way of intruding into Sir Joseph’s every move gave Briggle ample opportunity for comic exasperation.

A polished ensemble of six of Sir Joseph’s “sisters, cousins and aunts” and six sailors lifted the show, as did a bright, elegant ship designed and lighted by Peter Dean Beck. Music director Richard Carsey paced the show well; after a bit of a rocky start, his little orchestra found the groove. Carsey also re-orchestrated the piece; his addition of guitar and accordion gave a charming, sea-chantey cast to music.

The Skylight runs H.M.S. Pinafore through Dec. 19 in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets are $22.50-$65; call the BTC box office, 414-291-7800, or visit the Skylight’s website.

Categories: Classical, Theater

0 thoughts on “Skylight’s Pinafore smart and saucey”

  1. Anonymous says:

    This production is completely charming — an absolutely entertaining evening.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Janet and I thoroughly enjoyed this H.M.S. Pinafore. This as many of the other productions at the Skylight is full of creative little details that demonstrate mastery of the art of theater. We strongly agree with your review and hope this production finds the audience it deserves.

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