BWW Reviews: The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston's H.M.S. PINAFORE is a Feel-Good Indulgence

In 1874, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan wrote their first of 14 comedic operas together. As a duo Gilbert and Sullivan enjoyed early success with their notable operas H.M.S. PINFORE and THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE. Moreover, modern musical theatre traces its roots to this influential theatre duo. Therefore, it is no surprise that the comedic operas penned by Gilbert and Sullivan still delight and enthrall audiences all these years later. The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston was founded by a handful of Gilbert and Sullivan aficionadas in 1952. Their inaugural summer performance was THE GONDOLIERS. This summer, they are producing a charming and enchanting production of Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. PINAFORE.

Gilbert and Sullivan wrote H.M.S. PINAFORE, their first international hit, in 1878. The simplistic and melodramatic plot takes place on aboard the H.M.S. Pinafore. The captain's daughter, Josephine, is smitten with a lower-class sailor, Ralph Rackshaw. Despite her romantic feelings for the sailor, her father intends for her to marry Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Ralph and Josephine plan to sneak off the ship to elope; however, a surprise disclosure turns everything on its head just before the opera ends.

Alistair Donkin first joined the company in 1982 after the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company closed. He has since spent every summer in Houston, bringing with him his immense knowledge and passion for astounding Gilbert and Sullivan performances. This summer, his direction expertly captures the mirthfulness and silliness of W.S. Gilbert's lighthearted plot. Under his direction, the cast is beguiling and warm, while the humor lands well and encourages the audience to guffaw. Often, his stagings of the numbers are sincere and cheerful, as is the jovial choreography.

Musical Direction by Dr. Brian Runnels is intricately thorough, presenting audiences with the best of classic opera while maintaining the light-opera aspects of Arthur Sullivan's rousing score that paved the foundation of modern musical theatre. In essence, he skillfully creates a vibrant musicality that exists between both worlds. Under his baton, the orchestra and vocalists effortlessly entertain and fantastically impress the audience.

Josephine, Captain Corcoran's daughter, is immaculately sung and played by Amanda Kingston. Her histrionic overacting keeps the audience giggling as she pursues everything her heart desires. Her opulent and sumptuous soprano voice is decadently radiant and powerful, showcasing brilliant classical technicality. Amanda Kingston's renditions of "Sorry Her Lot," "Refrain, Audacious Tar," "The Hours Creep On Apace," and "Never Mind the Why and Wherefore" are all stunningly precise and splendidly gorgeous.

George Williams' Ralph Rackstraw, the lowborn sailor and Able Seaman that Josephine loves, is imbued with generous amounts of youthful energy. He is charismatic and instantly appeals to the audience, making us root for him from the very beginning. George Williams' bright and ebullient tenor voice glistens with sparkling liveliness on "The Nightingale," "A British Tar," "Refrain, Audacious Tar," "Can I Survive This Overbearing?," and "Oh Joy, Oh Rapture Unforeseen!"

Playing Captain Corcoran, Commander of the H.M.S. Pinafore, Dennis Arrowsmith is simply incredible. His impeccable comedic timing earns the evening's heartiest peals of laughter, especially as Sir Joseph embarrasses him for not being polite enough. Dennis Arrowsmith's vivid and crisp baritone instrument faultlessly glides through the score, with standout moments coming from his lush "Fair Moon, To Thee I Sing" and the frenetic "Never Mind The Why and Wherefore."

Mrs. Cripps, who is affectionately known as Little Buttercup, is luminously played and sung Sarah L. Lee. The genially amiable character is an instant favorite with the audience. We just can't help but love her spirited personality and wit. Sarah L. Lee's pleasant alto instrument is pristinely applied to "I'm Called Little Buttercup," "Sir, You Are Sad," "Things Are Seldom What They Seem," and "A Many Years Ago," making each of these moments magnificently memorable.

As the humorous antagonist, Alistair Donkin spectacularly plays the Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, First Lord of the Admiralty. He flawlessly performs the hilariously confident and pompous role. His prattle on "When I Was a Lad" dazzles and his baritone voice is tremendous on "Never Mind The Why and Wherefore."

As Able Seaman Dick Deadeye, Cristino Perez is captivating in a gleeful yet mysterious way. His "Kind Captain, I've Important Information" makes him devious in the plot, but the audience must applaud his unfaltering loyalty to his superior officer.

Rounding out the principal cast Zachary Bryant's Bill Bobstay, Julia Swindle's Cousin Hebe, and Brian Lessinger's Bob Beckett are all well portrayed and fully realized characters.

The large Chorus, under the leadership of Rob Seible as Chorus Master, is remarkable. In every number they perform, they pristinely blend with one another, crafting alluring aural landscapes that amaze the audience and create a rich tapestry that flawlessly supports the principal cast.

Set Design by Tom Boyd perfectly recreates the deck of a ship on The Wortham Center's Cullen Stage. The scale and magnitude of the attractive design is notable. While being fit onto the smaller Cullen stage, the boat's deck has the appearance of realistic and practical proportions.

Lighting Design by Ken Robertson-Scott uses realistic washes of bright lighting for the opening of the production. The lights slowly soften as the show progresses. Then, the second act is bathed in heavy, dulcet blues that convey nighttime with accuracy. The lit stars placed in the painted backdrop for the second act are ingenious touches.

Costume Design by Bonnie Holt Ambrose is glorious. Each piece is well tailored and suits each character. The most striking and visually stunning costumes are the colorful dresses worn by the female chorus. Their appearance floods the stage with color in the first act, breaking the monotony of the blue and white designs of the set and sailor costumes.

Sound Design by Jan G. Banker is wonderfully unobtrusive. The voices of the cast are heard without any difficulty. The orchestra is spotlessly mixed with the human voice, making the music that reaches the ears of the audience just as beautiful and intelligible as Arthur Sullivan intended.

The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston's presentation of H.M.S. PINAFORE is a wholly enjoyable feel-good indulgence. For fans of musical theatre, this is a great foray into the roots of that particular art form. For fans of opera, this is a superb break from the classic conventions in a show that is still reverent to the traditions of the genre. For lovers of a fine romantic comedy, this is a grand example of that particular art form. For audiences who are looking for a simple but good story and magnetizing vocal performances, this production of H.M.S. PINAFORE should top your list.

The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston will continue to present H.M.S. PINAFORE through July 28, 2013 in The Wortham Center's Cullen Theater. For more information and tickets, please visit http://gilbertandsullivan.net or call (281) 724-8363.

Photo courtesy of The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston.


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