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The Very Model of a Modern Major Musical

Gilbert and Sullivan Players Score a Hit

By Lance Nathan

staff writer

‘H.M.S. Pinafore’

Presented by Gilbert and Sullivan Players

Produced Paiyarut Kanjanavaikoon ’02

Directed by Stephanie C. Wang ’02 and Todd Neal

Starring Stuart Stanton G, Bridget Copley G, David Daly, Brian Bermack ’95, Daniel Abramson ’03, David Euresti ’01

With this weekend’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore, the MIT Gilbert and Sullivan Players return to one of the strongest pieces in their canon. Though still “light opera,” Pinafore is regarded as one of the best works of the 19th century writing team, and the Players rise to the occasion with an excellent production.

The story itself hardly merits recounting. Ralph Rackstraw (Stuart Stanton G), a common sailor on the Pinafore, is in love “above his station” with Josephine (Bridget Copley G), the daughter of Captain Corcoran (David Daly). Josephine secretly loves him as well, but her father has promised her hand in marriage to the Lord Admiral, Sir Joseph Porter (Brian Bermack ’95). Can the villainous Dick Deadeye (Daniel Abramson ’03) maintain the strict social order and keep them apart? Can the crew of the ship scheme to bring them together?

Of course he can’t; of course they can. This is Gilbert and Sullivan, after all, where marriages between all the right people are preordained, and these questions are the wrong ones to ask. The right ones are rather: how many jokes can be worked in before the ending? How much good singing can be fit into the play before the marriages? And the answers to those questions are, respectively, “quite a few” -- and even more in this production -- and “quite a lot”-- and, again, particularly in this production.

Stage director Stephanie C. Wang ’02 has done an excellent job of taking a story line and script which are, on their own, mildly entertaining, and simultaneously drawing out the humor and augmenting it with additional visual gags. The serious pieces -- primarily songs of love and longing -- are played straight, but throughout the rest of the show, Wang has scattered pearls of humor to remind the audience of the lightness of the opera.

Perhaps the best of these moments happen when the performers acknowledge that they are indeed performing. Porter, for instance, consults the conductor at one point, and boatswain’s mate Bill Bobstay (David Euresti ’01) attempts to get the audience to join in the cheering for the Admiral. And there are other, more subtle acknowledgements, such as Corcoran’s duet with Buttercup, in which the captain learns to anticipate swells in the music, and the sausage roll in Buttercup’s basket, left over from the previous Players production.

At the same time, this is after all opera. An amusing production would be nothing without strong voices, and this production does not want for them. To praise any one of the performers would be to slight the others unjustly. But, for indulgence’s sake, worth noting are the power of Copley’s voice and the amazing facility with which Abramson switches between his rasping speech and his clear, rich singing. Nor is the acting lacking; where the script allows for it, the leads perform admirably. Abramson brings a commanding physicality to the villain, scowling and lurching around the stage. No less notable are Daly’s pained expression and forced politeness to his crew, Bryant’s transformation from “sweet Little Buttercup” into a mysterious gypsy woman, and Copley’s disdain and occasional shock at being forced onto Porter.

Though the chorus occasionally displays the hallmark of underrehearsing, namely a tendency to fall out of sync when dancing or gesturing in unison, they offer a solid support for the leads. The orchestra, too, led by conductor Todd Neal, is the best the Players have had in some time. And though the costumes are adequate sailor and Victorian-woman fare, for the most part, with Admiral Porter looking oddly underdressed, the rest of the technical work is very good. The lighting, whether spotlighting soloists or casting a subdued blue over the somber evening scenes, sets the mood without getting in the way; the set is excellent, a two-level affair painted like a ship and festooned with ropes and cannons.

All in all, Pinafore offers comedy for those seeking light entertainment, and fine singing for music aficionados, both in the script and libretto, and in the execution. If the play is commonly regarded as Gilbert and Sullivan at their best, this production may be the MIT G&S Players at their best as well.