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Anchors Aweigh

Young Vic Stages a Lighthearted Pinafore

The Very Model of Modern Local Musical: Jeremy Blossey and Sara Stewart under the disapproving gaze of Thom King in the Young Vic Theatre Company's HMS Pinafore

By Jack Purdy | Posted 7/18/2001

HMS Pinafore

Lyrics and book by William Gilbert, music by Arthur Sullivan

Seeing the Young Victorian Theatre Company's splendid, spirited production of Gilbert and Sullivan's perennially popular HMS Pinafore points up the mutability of art. Today, a 20-year-old who watches, say, Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove must react differently than a 50-year-old, simply because today's young folk have no experience of the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction that's the dark comedy's core. Similarly, most viewers of Pinafore today see the wit and whimsy, which have survived since the operetta's first staging in 1878, but not the cutting satire. Pinafore posits that members of Her Majesty's Royal Navy are romantic, moony goofs, led by a man whose nautical knowledge is less than that of the average rubber ducky. Considering that, under Queen Victoria's reign, the Royal Navy was a near-sacred institution, Gilbert and Sullivan's audacity was breathtaking.

Add to this the sheer surrealism of much of Gilbert's lyrics ("I'm called Little Buttercup . . . though I could never tell why") and one can forgive the sheer banality of his plot and a last-minute twist of the sort that drove composer Sullivan nuts. If you don't know the plot, it's bone simple: Two couples love above/below their stations in life. But by playing the story line just this side of self-parody, director Roger Brunyate and his troupe of sturdy, beautiful voices highlight the absurdity while still allowing the audience to take the lovers' plight with just a grain of seriousness.

And making the production even more enjoyable for a Baltimore audience is the appearance, after a 12-year absence from the troupe, of Young Vic vet/Sun columnist Dan Rodricks in the role of First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Joseph Porter, who seeks the hand of Josephine Corcoran (Sara Elizabeth Stewart), daughter of the Pinafore's captain. Rodricks brings a real sense of show-biz pizzazz to the part, and while his voice is not in the class of the other leads, it's strong and tuneful. As Capt. Corcoran, whose future in the service may hinge on his daughter's marriage, Thom King evinces a forceful baritone and deft comic touch, barely managing to hold his anger in check when the nitwitted Sir Joseph commands him to include the words "if you please" in all orders to his men.

What particularly doesn't please the captain is that Josephine, whom Stewart makes a perfect embodiment of maidenly melancholia, is in love with the common seaman Ralph (pronounced "Rafe") Rackstraw (Jeremy Blossey), who loves her in return. Mirroring this socially unsuitable romance is the fondness between the captain and Little Buttercup (Shazy Hopfenberg), a woman who comes on board the Pinafore to peddle wares ranging from tobacco to sausages. It is Little Buttercup who will reveal the big secret that turns everything topsy-turvy on board, and Hopfenberg telegraphs this fact hilariously.

But without question, the most interesting character Gilbert and Sullivan created in HMS Pinafore is Dick Deadeye (James Rogers), the one-eyed, one-handed, hunchbacked seaman whose every utterance is greeted with loathing by his fellow crewmen, even when he expresses obvious truths about inequalities in the ranks in and in society. This rejection leads him to acts of villainy and betrayal that say a great deal about the high cost of physical ugliness--a meaningful message in today's celebrity-worshiping culture.

For the July 20 performance, James Rogers turns the role of Dick Deadeye over to Mark McGrath and fills in for Thom King as Capt. Corcoran. King has to keep his regular gig that night--he's the cantor at Beth El Congregation in Pikesville.

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