Skylight’s Pinafore smart and saucey
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.
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.
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.
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.