‘H.M.S. Pinafore’ at Virginia Opera Company

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Strictly speaking, I really shouldn’t like Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. I like theatre that is dark, shocking, provocative… I’m more comfortable at Capital Fringe than Disney on Ice. So no one was more surprised than I when I found myself shouting “Brava!” at the end of Virginia Opera Company’s effusive, exuberant, and thoroughly engaging production of H.M.S. Pinafore, which finished up a brief run today at the George Mason University Center for the Arts.

Mezzo-soprano Margaret Gawrysiak (Little Buttercup) and baritone Christopher Burchett (Captain Corcoran). Photo by credit Lucid Frame Productions.
Mezzo-soprano Margaret Gawrysiak (Little Buttercup) and baritone Christopher Burchett (Captain Corcoran). Photo by credit Lucid Frame Productions.

The key to VOC’s success in tackling this loony satire about love and social status is that they get the joke. Director Nicola Bowie leans into the goofy melodrama and over-the-top earnestness that characterizes Pinafore, and in doing show, strikes a complicit agreement with the audience that, yes, this show is ridiculous, and yes, it is still a lot of fun. This utterly confident self-deprecation extends to the magnificent set by Gary Eckhart, which, with its two-dimensional railings, cardboard cut out moon, and breathtaking painted mural, is deliberately self-conscious about its artificiality. Likewise, the lighting design by Adam H. Greene, strewn with roving spotlights, seems to revel in the traditional trappings of Old Theatre. I half-expected to walk outside onto a cobblestoned street lit by gas lamps. My companion last night had one word for the production: “retro”. And indeed, I can’t think of a better way to do justice to Pinafore than to dig in to the camp, do a twirl, and sing the living daylights out of those goofy numbers.

And what singing there is… Many times during the show I closed my eyes and listened to the beauty of un-adulterated technique. Accompanied by the exquisite Virginia Opera Orchestra, under the impressive leadership of Maestro Adam Turner, the vocals maintain the discipline of operatic training, while adapting to the expressiveness required by Gilbert and Sullivan. Jake Gardner, fresh off of a tremendous turn as Judge Turpin in VOC’s Sweeney Todd, straps on the breeches once again as the pompous yet lovable Sir Joseph Porter. His paean to his own implausibly successful naval career, “I Am the Monarch of the Sea,” is one of the funniest and most musically satisfying numbers in the production. As Sir Joseph’s unhappy betrothed, Josephine, lyric soprano Shannon Jennings sacrifices neither vocal quality nor expressive characterization. As showcased in “Sorry Her Lot,” Jennings’ voice is by turn diminutive and effervescent, vibrating through the space of the GMU Concert Hall to great effect.

Soprano Shannon Jennings (Josephine) and tenor Cullen Gandy (Ralph Rackstraw). Photo by  Lucid Frame Productions.
Tenor Cullen Gandy (Ralph Rackstraw) and  Soprano Shannon Jennings (Josephine). Photo by Lucid Frame Productions.

Margaret Gawrysiak, as Little Buttercup, the lower class peddler who provides the great eventual plot twist, adds a richer and more mature female sound to the show, as well as some wonderful physical comedy. In her character’s nominal waltz, “I’m Called Little Buttercup,” Gawrysiak is both sweet and saucy. And the voice of Cullen Gandy, as the strapping but lowly-born “tar” Ralph Rackstraw, has a sound that’s light enough to be romantic, but rich enough to rise above the orchestra and fill the space.

It’s true that my tastes may be darker than what Gilbert and Sullivan can provide – I for one, would have preferred the sailors to revolt, the leads to die, and Sir Joseph to come out as a trans anarchist or something – but the fact remains that H.M.S. Pinafore was a funny, moving, and exquisitely executed production; proving that after 40 seasons, Virginia Opera Company has not yet reached the peak of its aria.

Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, with one fifteen-minute intermission.

H.M.S. Pinafore played through today, December 6, at Virginia Opera Company, performing at the GMU Center for the Arts – 4400 University Drive, in Fairfax, VA. For more information about Virginia Opera Company and to purchase future tickets, go to their website.