Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

HMS Pinafore - Not One's Average Cup Of Tea, What

HMS Pinafore

This is the first Pinafore at Stratford in 25 years, and one does not get a chance to see much Gilbert and Sullivan anymore, but musicals at the Stratford Festival are a prime source of their revenue.

Gilbert and Sullivan's Pinafore celebrates all things English, symbolized by sipping cups of tea, what, what. This show will please with its exquisite set, wonderful costumes and talented cast.

Director Lezlie Wade sets her version of HMS Pinafore in 1917 on New Year's eve in a World War I naval convalescent hospital, a manor house with a Downton Abbey-like view of the classes. The set doubles as the ship with a love story that proves "love levels all ranks."

The singing and live orchestra led by Franklin Brasz is splendid. The music goes into a seven-part harmony in the Act I finale, causing one to hum the tune all through intermission. Kudos to set designer Douglas Paraschuk who is able to convincingly transform the manor house into the ship.

Mark Uhre (Able Seaman Ralph Rackstraw) and Jennifer Rider-Shaw (Josephine, the captain's daughter) are at the romantic centre of this operetta while ambitious Steve Ross (Captain Corcoran) and egotistical and incompetent Laurie Murdoch (Sir Joseph Porter) embody the class conflict.

HMS Pinafore

Corcoran tries to marry his daughter to Sir Joseph Porter to raise their social status, but she favours an elopement with lowly sailor Rackstraw until Little Buttercup (Lisa Horner), a woman who sells myriad trinkets to the sailors (and has a crush on the captain), reveals a secret that changes everything.

Uhre and Rider-Shaw are gifted leads, and Murdock is hilarious at his smug and snide best. The choreography by Kerry Gage is good, but if you want to see incredible artistry, see Donna Feore's Guys and Dolls.

HMS Pinafore runs at the Avon Theatre until October 21.

From Program Notes

Director's Notes by Lezlie Wade

I was introduced to Gilbert and Sullivan by my grandparents, who immigrated to Canada from London in 1908 and 1910. Their home in St. Thomas, Ontario, was always full of music. Born in 1901 in the Cheapside district of London, within earshot of Bow Bells, my grandfather was a true Cockney and always had a flair for the theatrical. It amazes me to think that both my grandparents would have been little children when Peter Pan first appeared on the London stage. By the time they came to Canada, they were well acquainted with Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and Gilbert and Sullivan. I can recall that by the time I was six years old, visits to their home always included a recitation of Albert and the Lion or Little Orphant Annie - and, on one such occasion, HMS Pinafore. I was enthralled. I laughed at the lyrics - which both grandparents knew by heart - and fancied myself the cheeky heroine, Josephine, who defies her father's wishes for true love. That Christmas my father bought me The Gondoliers and The Mikado. I was hooked. So, when the Festival asked me if I was interested in directing HMS Pinafore, it felt like going home.

As a child, my delight for Gilbert and Sullivan rested entirely on the lovely voices, funny characters, and clever lyrics, but as I grew older I began to appreciate the complexities of their unique collaboration. Their operas poked fun at the establishment and capitalized on the changing attitudes of the day; attitudes that included issues of the ruling elite, gender disparity, and political malfeasance. HMS Pinafore in particular makes fun of the ruling class, party politics, and patriotism - issues currently gracing the front page of any newspaper today.

I was lucky enough to revisit Gilbert and Sullivan here at the Stratford Festival when Brian Macdonald's productions dazzled audiences with inventive interpretations that poked fun at the politics of the day. It's a testimony to Gilbert that his dialogue and lyrics, along with Sullivan's classical technique, have remained popular and accessible to audiences from generation to generation. When my great-grandparents and my grandparents first fell in love with G&S, they were certainly deriving different things from it than I. Yet behind the humour there is such a strong commentary on socio-political injustices that the opera's themes are as familiar to us in 2017 as they were in 1878, or 1917.

It seems certain that, as long as we remain the flawed creatures that we are, Gilbert and Sullivan will always resonate on some level with audiences and find a place in our hearts and on our stages. At least, I'm guessing, that is what they were counting on.

"Oh, don't the days seem lank and long
When all goes right and nothing goes wrong,
And isn't your life extremely flat
With nothing whatever to grumble at!"
- WS. Gilbert

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