You never know what you’re getting when you walk into a performance at a fringe festival. You do know when you walk into a performance of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.
It can be kind of nice when you experience the expected.
I saw the Good Company Players production of “H.M.S. Pinafore” during the second week of its run after being immersed in coverage for a couple of weeks of Fresno’s Rogue Festival. The 2nd Space Theatre in the Tower District is in the heart of Rogue country, and it’s almost as if my body had been conditioned to expect yet another anything-goes moment in terms of content and tone. Would I be confronted with an account of wacky sexual experiences? A flurry of profanity? Searing tales of family dysfunction? A bracing riff on contemporary politics, an extravagant magic act or a musical smorgasbord of pointed topical songs?
None of the above.
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What I found instead was a nicely conceived and snappily performed production of “H.M.S. Pinafore” in all its Victorian-era, non-controversial glory. Yes, I understand that Gilbert & Sullivan isn’t going to shock anyone. And that the composing pair’s sing-songy, crisp-as-starched-British-trousers sensibility isn’t every theatergoer’s cup of Earl Grey tea.
But there’s something satisfying about the sweetness of this perky, silly show that gives a refreshing sheen to the experience.
This “Pinafore” is directed with a firm and gracious hand by J. Daniel Herring, who offers a faithful, period-specific interpretation. The Pinafore, a proud ship in Her Majesty’s navy, is docked at Portsmouth. On board we meet Ralph Rackstraw (played by the earnest and likable James Schott), an upstanding sailor with a big crush on Josephine (a sweet Meg Clark), the captain’s daughter.
The romantic complication: Josephine’s father (Larry Mattox, strong on acting and noticeably weak in his vocals) is keen on his daughter marrying a navy bigwig, Sir Joseph Porter (a blustery Jeff Dinmore), who makes a visit to the ship along with a retinue of his sisters, cousins and aunts. It’s a class-based dilemma. A mere sailor is too lowly for a captain’s daughter (at least according to the captain). But in a cheery twist, could the “ruler of the Queen’s navee,” as Sir Joseph describes himself, have risen so far above his own humble beginnings to put himself out of the running as well?
From the opening bars of the first tune, “We sail the ocean blue,” sung by a crew of jaunty sailors, Gilbert & Sullivan’s bouncy musical motifs set the tone of the show. The singing is nearly all quite good, and Herring’s choreography, which unfolds on David Pierce’s simple and pleasant nautical set, is energizing and elegant. I was particularly drawn to an aria in “A British Tar,” featuring Schott, Anthony teNyenhuis and Daniel Longoria, that bounced along with vigorous hand motions and a snappy three-part refrain. (teNyenhuis’ surprising bass voice is just lovely.)
As the young lovers, Schott and Clark (who both sing sweetly) do the most they can with a rather bland romance. Having far more fun are Dinmore, who swaggers through his role with comic aplomb, and two supporting players: Tracy Jones as the woe-is-me Little Buttercup, whose vocals soar; and Jacob Sherwood as the sailor misfit of the bunch, Dick Deadeye, whose sour demeanor helps cut the storyline’s saccharine sweetness.
Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed adds some subtle costuming flair by dressing Dick in dingy, off-white drawstring pants, a nice contrast to the bright sailor whites of the rest of the ensemble.
I can’t completely sugarcoat “H.M.S. Pinafore.” It can at moments feel like a museum piece, even with the deft staging. And there are times when it feels like Herring could give it a little bit more saucy self-awareness. (There’s a “hoist-his-flag” line reading that hints at more of an edge.)
Then again, there’s a subversive undertow in “Pinafore,” both in its skewering of British class culture and the way Gilbert & Sullivan offer a revelation in the finale that’s actually a bit jaw-dropping. The mixed-up ending could have been featured on the Victorian version of “The Jerry Springer Show.” Or, at the very least, the Rogue Festival.