BWW Review: Stratford Festival's HMS PINAFORE Hits the High Seas, High Notes, and High Marks

BWW Review: Stratford Festival's HMS PINAFORE Hits the High Seas, High Notes, and High Marks

Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS PINAFORE is gracing the Stratford Festival stage for the first time in 25 years and only the fourth time in the history of the festival. Mounted at the Avon Theatre, directed by Lezlie Wade, and choreographed by Kerry Gage, this production possesses the perfect balance of fun, ridiculousness and sentiment. The music is gorgeous, the company is brilliant and as a whole, it is simply delightful.

The musical opens as guests and staff at a 1917 Manor-Home Naval Hospital prepare to put on a New Year's Eve production of HMS PINAFORE. We are introduced to all the key players during this overture, albeit in different attire and some of different social rank than the characters they are about to portray. The commentary on social rank and the irrationality of it is a major theme and it is rightfully ever present.

As the play within the play begins, we to witness Douglas Paraschuk's beautiful and clever Set Design to its full extent. As a stairwell turns and reveals the cabin and cockpit of a ship, and the well-choreographed ensemble adds ladders and ropes as they fluidly move about, the Manor-Home transforms into a ship and the audience is immediately transported aboard the Pinafore. At the core of HMS PINAFORE is a love story between a clever yet lowly Seaman, Ralph Rackstraw (the charismatic Mark Uhre) and Josephine, the Captain's daughter (the exquisite Jennifer Rider-Shaw). Josephine's father, Captain Corcoran, played by the always hilarious Steve Ross wants her to marry above her station, not below it, and has arranged for her to meet and hopefully marry Sir Joseph Porter The First Lord of the Admiralty, played by the incredibly entertaining Laurie Murdoch. Meanwhile, Little Buttercup (the fantastic Lisa Horner), a bumboat woman with a wee bit of a crush on the Captain, has a long kept secret that is inevitably going to turn everything upside down, and Brad Rudy's Dick Deadeye is determined to prevent anyone from having a happy ending if he cannot have his own.

What makes this show so delightful is that its sources of humour come from incredibly clever and subversive lyrics and themes as well as incredibly silly melodrama and physical comedy. In a sense, there is 'something for everyone'-which is one of the reasons why Gilbert and Sullivan productions have been so successful, but for those who happen to appreciate both types of humour, this production is an absolute gift.

The two leads give stunning performances and are both true stars. Rider-Shaw has a golden voice and a commanding presence when she takes the stage alone for her performances of Sorry Her Lot and The Hours Creep On Apace. She is also fantastic when matched up with Ross and Murdoch for the best rendition of Never Mind the Why and Wherefore that I've seen. She is graceful and funny and can immediately win the audience over with a knowing glance or a well-timed glare or eye roll. Uhre is charming and funny with a knack for physical comedy and gorgeous singing voice. His energy seems boundless and his chemistry with Rider-Shaw is terrific. The love story between the two is intentionally over-the-top (to great effect) but at the same time, it is genuinely touching and honest. That has got to be a tough balance to strike, but they have certainly done it.

What helps to steer this ship (I made it further than anticipated without making an inevitable pun) is the beautiful music, performed by a live orchestra led by Music Director Franklin Brasz, and the outstanding ensemble of sailors and lasses who captivate the audience with their song and dance. I believe the female ensemble members (Sir Joseph's sisters and cousin and aunts) have more to do in this production than in some other productions of this musical. This undoubtedly elevates the entire production both from a visual standpoint because there are more performers on the stage and more movement and choreography to see, but also from an auditory perspective, because of the range and variety of voices that are singing the fabulous music. Each ensemble member almost has his or her own subtle story, and I noticed in the program, that the Swings (who cover ensemble parts if someone cannot go on) even have their own separate characters to be inserted if needed. It is clear that a great deal care went into making each and every member of the company, a full and thought-out character. This is the type of show that is worth seeing more than once, just to focus on a different ensemble member's performance each time.

As someone lucky enough to call Stratford home, each season there seems to be a production that I find myself attending multiple times, simply because of the way it makes me feel. This is that production. It has so much heart, is constantly funny, and boasts phenomenal performances. It also provides a social commentary that though specific to a certain time and place, is remarkably relatable even still.

HMS PINAFORE runs in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 21st.

Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann

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