H.M.S. Pinafore at the Guthrie Theater

Robert O. Berdahl and the Sailors in H.M.S. Pinafore. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Perhaps director Joe Dowling and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (provider of “additional material”) are right: as it stands Gilbert and Sullivan‘s gloriously English, emphatically 19th century H.M.S. Pinafore (at the Guthrie, through August 28) is too dry and dreary for 21st century Americans.  The story, of the sea captain’s daughter torn between her love for the lowborn but achingly handsome sailor and the successful but proudly stodgy admiral (“I am the ruler of the Queen’s navee”), doesn’t grab contemporary audiences.  The Big Revelation at the end is silly.  The music thrills, of course, but the arrangements are slow and old-fashioned, trumpety and shrill.

So the Guthrie delivers up a glitzy, hammy, modern, hyper-energized, over-the-top production, filled with story lines and comic material not found in the original.  The set (Frank Hallinan Flood) is huge: a steamship (rather than G&S’s man-o’-war) with a huge deck, suitable for David Bolger‘s fluid contemporary choreography.  Andrew Cooke arranges the music a la musical comedy: heavy on the snare drum and keyboards, with occasional electric guitar and some Jimmy Buffett-esque steel drums.  Hatcher fills the play with funny material (“We’ve redecorated the brig; now it’s a dungeon.”).  His stuff is smart and for the most part it serves the play well.

But groaners abound.  The soaring and patriotic “He Is An Englishman” (“In spite of all temptations / To belong to other nations / He remains an Englishman”) is given, at first, a straight-forward and pleasing rendition.  But then we get a jazzy (and lengthy) reprise, its wild choreography culminating with the actor ripping off his bell-bottoms to reveal Union Jack jockeys.  (This is, it’s worth mentioning, the second trou-dropping bit in the show.)  The great Barbara Byrne plays… an historical personage who reveals, improbably, that in her youth she carried on hotly and heavily with Posthumous Ocular Richard (Deadeye Dick).  Funny stuff to be sure, but not to be found in the original.

The acting is terrific, of course (this is the Guthrie).  Ditto the singing; the wonderful G&S music comes through with resounding intensity.  As the lovers Heather Lindell and  Aleks Knezevich sing gorgeously and their scenes together are very funny.  Robert O. Berdahl amazes as the Captain – although his physical, out-there approach caused me to occasionally fear for his mental health.  Peter Thomson excels as Admiral Porter, with his potbelly and his goofy skipping dance.  I adored Christina Baldwin as not-so-aptly-named Buttercup; perhaps it’s because her performance is relatively straightforward.  It all works well.  Indeed, high-energy/low-camp is emerging as a dominant Guthrie style: witness the recent 39 Steps and (to a lesser extent) Arms And The Man.  These artists do it as well as it’s ever been done.

Does this approach please your Intrepid Reviewer?  It does not.  He has an allergy to performers who want us to believe they’re better than the play.  He also suffers from great respect for traditional Gilbert and Sullivan.

But is the Guthrie’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore well done?  It is.  In fact, it’s beautifully done, as evidenced by the wildly enthusiastic reaction of the opening night audience.  They applauded after every song and leapt to their feet for a standing ovation.

So you, Intrepid Review Reader, have a decision to make: does this sound like your cup o’ tea?  If it does, go see Pinafore.  You will have a grand time.

For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.


15 comments for “H.M.S. Pinafore at the Guthrie Theater

  1. Cal
    November 13, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    It might be better to say it exemplifies the word “travesty”: “a false, absurd, or distorted representation of something; an exaggerated or grotesque imitation, such as a parody of a literary work.”

  2. Cal
    November 13, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    “I was deeply offended by this disgraceful production. It defines the word “bowdlerize.””

    Actually, “bowdlerize” refers to the expurgation of material considered offensive, not the adaptation of a work to modern artistic tastes. The word comes from the name of Mr. Thomas Bowdler, who, in 1818, published a “family edition” of Shakespeare with a text he considered more suitable for women and children. This is why in G&S’s Princess Ida, Lady Psyche suggests that her students get their editions of the classics bowdlerized.

  3. Ronald G.Havelock
    October 19, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    I was deeply offended by this disgraceful production. It defines the word “bowdlerize.” Anyone who know and loves G&S like I do cannot help but be disgusted. Sorry, PBS. No donations this year. I am really angry that this production was allowed to go forward. Guthrie have lost their senses!

  4. Purbrookian
    October 16, 2011 at 5:03 am

    Totally in agreement with Mr Beeman’s remarks. Do people like Andrew Cooke and other meddlers think they can improve – or if not improve, at least make worthwhile revisions to – Sullivan’s tempi and Gilbert’s phrasing? In his enthusiasm to be innovative, Mr Cooke has accomplished the G and S equivalent of producing Shakespeare in modern dress; it never works. Never.

    There are sound reasons why the operettas used joy, and melancholy , and farce, at those particular places, and in that particular way. Chucking calypso and jazz and pop-rock in at a whim was catastrophic.

  5. Pat La Rose
    October 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    It was awful. I had to Google the theater to be sure it was in fact the same famous, respected one, I thought it was. The acting was NOT wonderful. It was overblown and hammy. The captain was so twitchy, I thought he was drunk all the time. Buttercup also never stopped hamming it up, nor did the others, I think. I say “think” because I coudn’t stand to watch too much. All I kept thinking was…let the material do the job and let the actors act like they don’t know they’re ridiculous. I blame the director. Really, really bad. Shame on PBS too. We have an expression in Vermont to explain why all those born here are not necessarily Vermonters. Just ’cause it’s baked in an oven, doesn’t mean it’s a bun. Just ’cause it’s produced by the Guthrie and shown on PBS doesn’t mean it ‘s quality theater. The Pinafore s(t)ank.

  6. geoffinla
    October 15, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    I watched the production on TV last night, alternating between feelings of vague amusement and outraged horror at the travesty. I agree with the opinions of critic John Olive and William O. Beeman. However, II would like to express a word or two of praise for that magnificent male chorus of sailors. Those guys, dancers, singers, actors all, were simply fabulous. The choreography they danced to, in my prejudiced opinion, was outstanding.

  7. G Jackson
    October 15, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    G&S meets Glee. I think a “turn in their grave” comment is appropriate here. What was the producer thinking. “It’s for an American audiaece so lets drop our pants”? Sorry but it was just too awful.

  8. Karla Westlake
    October 15, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Thank you for putting the right words to my intense dislike of the Guthrie performance of Pinafore on PBS. The good parts of Gilbert and Sullivan were ruined and the new additions were silly and distracting. The dancers and the choreography were probably the best part of the show.

  9. caslo
    October 14, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    Frighteningly bad.

  10. July 24, 2011 at 11:05 pm

    I have no problem with adapting even very sacred stage works. We have Peter Brook’s A Magic Flute at the Lincoln Center Festival and his former La Tragedie de Carmen as well as Jeune Lune’s Figaro and Don Giovanni. There is also the Hot Mikado, the Jazz Mikado etc., but every one of these doesn’t pretend to be the original. This production falls very far from the original. It introduces new music (from Princess Ida and Iolanthe), cuts out much other music (the Overture for one), and adds new story lines. Mostly, however, Andrew Cooke has given this the Chanhassen Dinner Theater makeover. He has rewritten almost every note of the show in a cross between Andrew Lloyd Weber and Kander and Ebb. Of course Sullivan’s meticulous orchestration is completely gone. Cooke changes time signatures, running pieces written originally in 3/4 in 4/4 fox-trot tempo. Sometimes it works. Buttercup’s numbers in Latin rhythms are amusing. But he also redoes the harmonies, adds measures to the music and cuts out many others. It is not respectful of Sullivan–not that that really matters theatrically, but his changes-for-the-sake-of-change don’t really add to the piece. I mean, does Cooke think he can do better word setting than Sullivan? If you know the original you know that he can not. Ralph Rackstraw is a great actor and dancer, but he is not a tenor. Dick Deadeye is not a bass. Their “money notes” are taken up or down an octave. Josephine’s second act aria, “A Simple Sailor” could be perfect in a pop styling if Cook had left the harmonic rhythm in place. It sounded rushed and nowhere near a beautiful and affecting as the original, as if Cooke didn’t think the audience could listen to five minutes of sustained solo music. The original show is short–it is often done with a curtain-raiser. The added dance numbers (a tap routine for “He is an Englishman” and other extra music lengthens it by a half hour. The production team obviously thought people would be bored by a straight production, so they pull out all the stops–stage machinery, mirror balls, balloons, birds, fish, tangos, tap numbers and drop-trou comedy. All that said, the cast is outstanding. They work their tails off, and if one has no idea at all about the original show, it must certainly be entertaining, but I winced at every silly Broadway key change and meaningless pop-styling. Innovate, yes, absolutely, but don’t innovate just to do it, and for heaven’s sake, be true to the musical values of the original.

  11. Mona Eastman
    July 22, 2011 at 2:12 am

    Thanks for saving me the expense of a “Pinafore” ticket –
    Gilbert & Sullivan should never be tweaked.

  12. June 26, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    Both actors are excellent in the show. But I misread the program and mentioned Mr. McKindles in the review when I should have mentioned Mr. Knezevich. My apologies to both actors. I have corrected the error.

  13. admin
    June 26, 2011 at 9:13 am

    Thanks. The error has been corrected.

  14. Robb McKindles
    June 26, 2011 at 1:16 am

    Aleks Knezevich plays Ralph, not Robb McKindles

  15. Jesssica
    June 25, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    I believe that there is an error in the listing of Robb McKindles as young lover. McKindles does play one of the sailors, but Heather Lindell’s love interest in the show is actually Aleks Knezevich. I saw this error in another article as well and wanted to make sure to give credit where credit is due. Robb McKindles, you were great as well 🙂

How Was the Show for You?

Your email address will not be published.