Discovered this due to Library Camp 2016: An Unconference .
Review: Give Three Cheers, and One Cheer More for UMGASS's Production of the Pinafore
OK, so, H.M.S. Pinafore means a lot to me. I was into theater a bunch when I was a kid, and as a sophomore in high school in Overland Park, Kansas, I found myself in the role of Ralph Rackstraw, and found my crush in the role of Josephine. Or maybe she became my crush because she was in the role of Josephine. The 80s are a little blurry these days, but I definitely remember singing Twist & Shout on a parade float. Suffice it to say, this show gives me the FEELS, and I know it like the back of my hand.
So, naturally, I approach many modern stagings of H.M.S. Pinafore with a bit of trepidation. I love the of-the-momentness of Gilbert & Sullivan, and that moment was not the Roaring 20s, or the South Pacific circa 1943, or on the bridge of a Starship, or any such nonsense. I get it, the temptation of a stunty slant on such an endlessly reheated work can be irresistible for cast and crew alike, but I'm in the audience, damme, and I'm here to see something authentic-ish!
Which is why I was so delighted by what must have been the University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society's umpteenth staging of H.M.S. Pinafore. With the exception of a small amount of clever, harmless nonsense tacked on to the beginning of each act, this was a wonderfully authentic production, with very strong leads and a talented chorus, put on at a rollicking pace with a pit orchestra spilling over into the aisles of the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater.
Tom Cilluffo delivers an outstanding performance as Ralph Rackstraw. I really appreciate that UMGASS does not amplify their cast, and Cilluffo fills the hall with his mastery of the role, going for and easily nailing the high notes that even some professionals pass up. He's very funny as well, in a role that often gets played overly earnestly by high school sophomores in Kansas.
Adina Triolo as Josephine is even more excellent, anchoring the production with her talent and poise, balancing Josephine's ethereal solos with a gift for mugging as appropriate. Gilbert & Sullivan's original productions were famous for eschewing the stilted, heavily-stylized delivery of their time in favor of remarkably natural performances, and Triolo continues that tradition while still shining as a virtuoso in a challenging role. Yeah, so she also looks quite a bit like my high school crush. No, you have goosebumps.
Phillip Rhodes as Captain Corcoran does a great job with some of the show's best songs, and plays especially well with Don Regan, who is refined and funny as Sir Joseph. I will say I was disappointed by Sir Joseph's straightforward aristocratic costume; his frippery is usually a highlight of Pinafore Productions. However, Regan gets big bonus points for pronouncing "clerk" as "clark" to properly rhyme with "mark"; this is a Gilbert & Sullivan shibboleth; those who miss this rhyme should be put to death.
Andrew Burgmayer did an admirable job as Dick Deadeye, physically inhabiting the role thoroughly enough to make it a surprise when he shrugged it off for curtain call. I do wish I could have heard him a bit better, but it's a tough range. He and Rhodes did a wonderful job on "Kind Captain, I've Important Information," perhaps the only duet ever written about a torture implement.
Lee Vahlsing held the entire show together as Bill Bobstay, a role with a lot of exposition to deliver and did an outstanding job on "He is an Englishman." Vahlsing and Cilluffo were joined by U-M freshman and impressive bass Natan Zamansky on the challenging a capella sections of "A British Tar", and they nailed this song where community productions often run aground.
Lori Gould was a perfect Buttercup, adding some great asides to the role, and the director did a careful job to set up Meredith Kelly's Cousin Hebe as a love interest for Sir Joseph, which often seems to come out of nowhere once the social order inevitably goes all topsy-turvy. Surely that's not a spoiler, seeing as how THIS SHOW PREMIERED IN 1878.
All the sailors and sisters and cousins and aunts are well-rehearsed and the choreography is delightful, with some very clever and funny twists without falling into gimmickry.
My only real disappointment with this show was a truly nerdy nitpick; there's a short exchange between Sir Joseph and Hebe near the end that was a recitative in the early productions, but then became spoken dialogue. I don't care if the spoken version has been canon for 130 of the work's 138 years; I love that recitative and would have been thrilled to hear it! What do Gilbert & Sullivan know about Gilbert & Sullivan anyway?
And along those lines, there's an alternate ending where Sullivan added a chorus of "Rule, Britannia" to celebrate Queen Victoria's Jubilee. I love UMGASS's tradition of opening the show with having the audience stand and sing "God Save the Queen," and I was hoping they'd go with the Imperial ending! As you can see, these are very important concerns.
This is a fun, polished, and refreshingly straightforward production of one of the greatest works of musical theater, and a entertaining evening for total fo'c'sle noobs as well as for hopeless Savoy-savvy fussbudgets like me. Whether this is your first experience on the Saucy Ship or your hundredth, you're sure to enjoy the efforts of these safeguards of our nation. Congrats to cast and crew, and thanks for a trip down memory lane.
Eli Neiburger is Deputy Director of the Ann Arbor District Library and had no business being cast as Ralph Rackstraw in high school. Love levels all ranks, but it does not level them as much as that.
UMGASS presents H.M.S. Pinafore continues April 8, 9, and 10 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater. Ticket sales have closed online, but tickets will still be available for purchase at the Box Office.