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SHTICK TO THE BASICS: Lyric Opera’s Pinafore is best when it honors the authors

Gilbert & Sullivan’s operettas are so durable that directors succeed best when they go easy on shtick and focus on dead-on execution of the shows’ intrinsic rich humor. The Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s production of HMS Pinafore, which opened November 6 at the Lyric Theatre, was most convincing when it stood back and let us listen to W.S. Gilbert’s peerless lyrics, set to music with blinding cleverness by Arthur Sullivan. If the physical comedy kept the eye busy and the funny-bone tickled — incessant dancing and slapstick gags pushed to vaudeville extremes — it rarely achieved the level of sophistication of the inherent humor, and grew contrived by the end.

Nevertheless this was, in many respects, a highly accomplished PinaforeRobert Gibby Brand displayed to marvelous advantage his well-known comedic flair as Sir Joseph Porter, very nearly stealing the show from his younger, operatically trained colleagues. He found humor in details — a face drawn tightly at the right moment, a sissified wave, a stiffened gait that stopped just short of shtick. Of course Porter has the fortune of getting to sing the opera’s most winning satirical number, “When I was a Lad,” which Brand made into a surprisingly subtle comic tour de force.

Jon-Michael Ball conveyed Ralph Rackstraw’s “high” birth the moment he set foot onstage, with a regal bearing that made us question, and quite rightly so, what he was doing in a sailor suit (though his unflattering costume with its half-length waistcoat looked too sloppy to be that of a gentleman). But the nicest surprise came when he opened his mouth: Ball possesses a splendidbel canto tenor voice, clear and natural and with a dark sort of pathos beneath; his brief arias piqued my curiosity to hear him in more serious roles. Vocally speaking he mopped up the stage.

Ava Pine sang Josephine with a sweet, silvery soprano that was pleasing to the ear but lacked variety. In ensembles she soared deliciously above the rest of the texture, and her big Act 2 aria was suitably “operatic.” But she looked out-of-character in some of the broader farcical bits, like the hip-hop neck-swivel in “Never Mind the Why or Wherefore.” Daniel Belcher made the role of Captain Corcoran into something resembling gay camp, with hyperactive comic touches that were sometimes elegant but painted in broad strokes. Deborah Fields’ opening aria as Buttercup (“I’m Called Little Buttercup”) was filled with quirks and coy glances that ultimately detracted from the song’s impact, though in general her detailed performance was a hit with the audience.Matthew Treviño’s snarling, phrase-chewing Dick Deadeye was an audience favorite as well.  

Stage director William Theisen was able to move unwieldy groups around the Lyric’s tight stage efficiently and with a dash of humor, and he worked naturally with soloists and small ensembles. It was only when he and his players added strained asides that the opera began to look like an episode of “Laugh-In”: Deadeye getting repeatedly knocked overboard (with grand splash), the endless ironic salutes, the cawing crow finally shot down and landing with a plop on the deck.

Mark Ferrell’s musical direction was purposeful and with well-gauged tempos and mood shifts, though one regretted the scary near-collisions between singers and orchestra in Act 1. The agreeable rented set by Gary Eckhart featured a horseshoe-shaped dual staircase leading up to a central bridge, with sweeping sails above and rudimentary scalloped waves behind. The rented costumes were standard-issue nautical, and Jan Delovage’s makeup ranged from wryly savvy (Porter as a jovially over-painted Gustav Aschenbach figure) to deliciously macabre (Deadeye’s gorily offset eye) and doll-like (Rackstraw’s rosy cheeks). The audience of 1,100 or so received the show warmly, laughed quite a bit, and gave the cast and crew an extended ovation.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

 

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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