by BRUCE BROWNE
Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and …. Gilbert and Sullivan? Absolutely, yes! Those two set off 135 years ago on the partnership trail that would lead to 14 successful operettas. (Today we might call them musicals, but they’re not!) And some decades later, their American cousins followed suit with their own partnerships. W. S. Gilbert (words) and Arthur Sullivan (music), though, were the first populist duo to mix the vernacular with the operatic and come out with the model of the modern major musical.
Mock’s Crest production of H.M.S. Pinafore was Gilbert and Sullivan at their most traditional, perhaps close to the way one would have seen it in 1878. Costumes, set and actors all hewed closely to the D’Oyly Carte production. Dialogue and lyrics original. No modern references (a la Pirate of Penzance at Portland Opera last year.) Pinafore purists should be proud.
Give three cheers, and one cheer more, for the orchestra, led by Tracey Edson. It was a great band, and stationed in a great place – upstage, behind the actors. Edson kept a swift pace, as the show clocked in at just a little over two hours. Still time for a cool summer ice cream before bed.
Most impressive were John Vergin, as Sir Joseph Porter, and Brian Tierney, as the “audacious tar,” Ralph Rackstraw. Vergin filled the bill in every way. His impressions of a bloated and self-mocking Lord Admiral were dead on. Tierney’s tenor rang easily through the house. (Both are veteran members of the Mock’s Crest cast, Vergin a favorite among the Mock’s Crest faithful.) I’ve never heard either sing better, and I think Tierney is among the best tenors in the Northwest, hands down.
G and S operettas are tricky – not meant for untrained voices – but great actors are needed too. There’s a fine line between the genres of musical, opera and operetta. The latter two call for first rate singers who can act; the former, for great actors who can sing. This performance called for both.
Cassi Kohl, as Josephine, was a good singer, with a Broadway musical bent to her voice, but able to negotiate the typical vocal challenges of the lead soprano role so often assigned by Sullivan (think the coloratura of Mabel, in Pirates of Penzance).
Kohl is a gifted comedienne, with rubber face, and an arsenal of gestures and stances invoking Lucille Ball/Carol Burnett. Her Josephine, however, was sometimes too over- the-top to fit the role, and occasionally distracted from her singing, as in the second act’s “God of Love and God of Reason” aria. Lucille Ball was not a necessary ingredient for the character of Josephine in every scene.
Margo Schembre, as Buttercup, was the perfect comedic foil for the Captain, Bobby Winstead. Schembre’s ample mezzo/alto voice was beautifully suited to the part and Winstead’s aria at the beginning of Act II (“Fair Moon to Thee I Sing”) was dulcet and lyrical, without being overstuffed. Mike Derderian, as the comic villain, Dick Deadeye (not a nice name), was effective too, all half-cocked bluster and a trifle psychotic. (He and Schembre are real life man and wife.)
Staging and dramatic content were well nigh perfect. All the cast members had to move well, and to dance throughout the show. Both director Bruce Hostetler and choreographer Jessica Wallenfels deserve a huge nod for their work here. Actors seemed directed toward melodrama, with head turns and stop stares for effect, but because it was consistent it worked. The chorus, too, was a well coordinated unit, attentive to their duty both dramatically and musically.
The minor parts were diminished by the gap in vocal production between the leading singers, and that of Bill Bobstay (Nathan Wright) and Bob Beckett (Lincoln Thomas). They made good shipmates for Ralph and his crew, but were not of the dramatic and vocal quality of the rest of the cast. Cousin Hebe (Sarah Maines) was of a different stripe: lovely voice combined with convincing acting.
Two things are on my wish list for future productions. First is for the company to troll for a real basso or two. The University of Portland’s Mago Hunt Center is a good enough venue, but it’s a high-end friendly hall, so the bass voices in the chorus, and indeed a couple of the leads, hardly ever carried as well as might be hoped. The strong voice of Deadeye went out to sea when he sang low in the bass range. And similarly the bass line was MIA in the wonderful trio, “A British Tar is a Soaring Soul.”
Thing two is something easily avoided. The printed program offered some humor of its own. The “Oregon Back Festival” apparently referred to a place where singers with spinal stenosis could go for treatments, and “John” Gilbert, an American actor of the early 20th century, had perhaps partnered with Sir Arthur Sullivan when the former was four years old. These were among several typos in the program that were distracting and unnecessary. And as they say in Pinafore, “damme, it’s too bad.”
Full disclosure: I love Gilbert and Sullivan. I thought of two things as the show opened. First, our dear friend Roger Doyle, the late, longtime UP choir director who founded this venture, and left a huge footprint on Portland’s musical scene. Second, as I noticed the children in the audience, I recalled my own first impression as a fifteen-year old boy, of a magnificent production of this very show in the old War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.
Go to Mock’s Crest for the remaining performances of Pinafore or put it on next year’s summer calendar right now. It is a glorious thing.
Mock’s Crest Productions’ HMS Pinafore runs through Sunday, June 28, at the University of Portland’s Mago Hunt Center. Tickets are available online and at 503-943-7287.
Portland choral conductor Bruce Browne led the Portland Symphonic Choir and choral programs at Portland State University for many years.
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