Thursday, April 2, 2015

Review: NY Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ H.M.S. Pinafore at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach, CA


When thinking about musical theatre, it is a shame that modern audiences are not more familiar with the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Fortunately, the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players keep the legacy alive, as they take their shows to the stage in the Big Apple, as well as around the US. I recently had the pleasure of seeing their production of H.M.S. Pinafore at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach, California.

This location was a great choice as the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach is a lovely venue with plenty of conveniently located parking. Each of the 1000 seats has a good view of the stage (without being too far away) and the acoustics are very good.

The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players have been around since 1974 (or 1975, depending where you look), when the group was founded by a group of alumni from the Barnard College Gilbert & Sullivan Society at Columbia University. One of these folks was their biggest proponent, Albert Bergeret, Founder and Artistic Director/General Manager. Besides their full productions, they also conduct many outreach performances to student in NYC schools.

H.M.S. Pinafore was Gilbert & Sullivan’s first international hit, and it ran for around 600 performances in its first London run in 1878. It was so successful that this talented duo was ripped off by numerous copies of the show that sprang up in the Empire and in the United States. With their clever lyrics and biting satire, the show is the story of two young lovers, Ralph Rackstraw and the captain’s daughter, Josephine, who kept apart by society until a convenient role reversal brings them together in a most improbable ending. There are a few other romantic plotlines bizarre plot turns, making it complicated enough that I am not even going to try to fit it all into a 800-word review…

The overall themes of class inequality, overbearing nationalism, and foolish are still relevant, and they are presented with Gilbert’s inimitable linguistic genius and Sullivan’s knack for writing addictive melodies.

The NYGASP brought all of this to Long Beach for one lonely matinee, which seems like a lot of work for a single show. They brought the full cast, the crew, a 25-piece unamplified orchestra, and an impressive set of sets and backdrops. They were faithful to the music of the show, and the book was modified a bit to bring some local flavor to the production, as well as to bring the orchestra and Mr. Bergeret (the musical director too, it seems) into the stage action.

Visually, Pinafore is an attractive show. There is only one set, but it is a fairly detailed replica of a ship’s deck, complete with rigging and huge masts, so it must be a bear to drag around and set up. The lighting was classy and brought the scenes to life, courtesy of designs by Benjamin Weill. For the most part, the cast was not amplified, but there must have been some sort of microphones set up near the back of the stage, as the volume of the vocals varied quite a bit as the cast moved back and forth. They might want to work on this a bit.

The costumes were also well done, without going over the top. The sailors’ (tars, as the would say) and officer’s uniforms seemed period correct, as far as I would know; the ladies’ gowns were also very pretty, with more than enough bustles to go around.

The cast embraced the spirit of Gilbert & Sullivan perfectly. They are all capable singers and dancers, but that is not really what this show is about – the acting comes first. They have great comedic timing, and are able to spit out the uber-complicated lyrics with no missed cues. The leads all gave satadnout performances, and the players included David Auxier as Captain Corcoran, Kate Bass as Josephine, Daniel Greenwood and Ralph Rackstraw, James mills as Sir Joseph Porter, and Angela Christine Smith as Little Buttercup. All of them are very experienced with the Players, and some have actually appears in all 13 G&S operas. Impressive!

If there was anything that brought me down about the NY Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ production of H.M.S. Pinafore, it was that the auditorium was only 2/3 full, and there were not many young folks in the crowd. Where are the new fans going to come from? If you have not seen one of these shows before, take the time to check one out the next time one comes up in your area – it will definitely be worth your time!


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