Theater: Silly seas

Victorian absurdity abounds in ‘H.M.S. Pinafore’

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‘H.M.S. Pinafore,’ a Gilbert & Sullivan musical, is full of upbeat and entertaining songs and dances. Photo by Robin Jackson.

By Charles Brousse

For a pleasant two-hour cruise this holiday season, you can do no better than to step aboard Ross Valley Players(RVP) H.M.S. Pinafore. Since she was launched in 1878, the old girl may be a mite creaky, but the amiable crew will entertain you with dancing and song. You’ll be tickled by the satire and general—sorry, I mean admiral—absurdity, and you’ll hum a happy tune as true love overcomes every—repeat every—adversity.

If that isn’t enough, the ship’s dock at the Marin Art & Garden Center is minutes away from anywhere in the county, and a boarding pass (aka “ticket”) is available for a few shillings (dollars also accepted).

End of promotional message.

There’s something about Gilbert & Sullivan musicals: You either hate ’em or you love ’em. After being in the former category for years, I found myself reversing course last season while reviewing RVP’s production of The Pirates of Penzance. Both it and Pinafore were directed by James Dunn, who seems to have an instinctive affinity for the material, and both (I came to recognize) are perfect vehicles for a community theater like RVP, whose variable talent mix and modest staging imparts a freshness that fully professional productions, with their trained voices and expensive special effects, often lack. In fact, the flaws—accidental or intentional—add to the fun.

Writer W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, with the incalculably valuable assistance of impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, founder of the comic opera company that bears his name, were the key figures in bringing a new form of musical entertainment to an international audience. Borrowing the aria/recitative style used by European composers of grand opera like Rossini, Donizetti and Mozart, and combining it with elements of traditional English music hall shtick, the team playfully satirizes the institutions, customs and beliefs of the late Victorian period.

In this case, their primary targets are the highly esteemed (“ruler of the waves”) British navy, patriotism and a class system that was (and probably still is) as deeply embedded in the military as it is in civil society. The incongruously named warship Pinafore has just returned to its homeport of Portsmouth after weeks of patrolling the high seas in the queen’s name. As the opera opens on the vessel’s gun deck (realistically captured by scenic designer Ron Krempetz), the “tars” are in a jolly mood as they sing about sailing the ocean blue and chide their beloved Captain Corcoran (Bobby Singer) as he musically boasts about never swearing at them or getting seasick. “What, never?” one asks. “No, never” he firmly insists. “What, never?” demands another. “Well,” replies the captain, “hardly ever.”

In quick succession, we meet two female visitors from shore who introduce the twisty plot that follows. The perfectly named, cuddly Little Buttercup (Heather Werkheiser), a shore vendor, is the first to arrive. She announces her presence with the plaintive song “Poor Little Buttercup,” which laments her inability to rise above her station and engage the captain’s affection. But, when the latter shares his concern that his pretty young daughter Josephine (Sibel Demirmen) is unhappy about her approaching arranged marriage with the much older Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, First Lord of the Admiralty (the irrepressible Norman A. Hall) she hints that she holds a dark secret that she will disclose one day. It also turns out that Josephine is in love with an ordinary seaman named Ralph Rackstraw (Cordell Wesselink), and he with her, although the customs of the period prohibit them from defying her father’s wishes.

Some of the opera’s finest moments occur when Josephine and Ralph vocalize their apparently ill-fated love for each other in emotional arias. There are many other high spots, such as when Sir Joseph explains how he rose to be head of the navy without ever having gone to sea, but space limitations only permit me to compliment the large ensemble for its work. Popular in its time, in today’s threatening world H.M.S. Pinafore’s joyful irreverence is a welcome burst of light.

NOW PLAYING: H.M.S. Pinafore runs through December 18 at RVP’s Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.

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