Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Gaily Tripping, Lightly Skipping... Kevin Paul Wickart on "H.M.S. Pinafore"

My friend Kevin Paul Wickart has shared his theatrical experiences with us before, as you may recall. Here is Kevin again, this time on the subject of "H.M.S Pinafore" with Prairie Fire Theatre, in which Kevin plays Sir Joseph Porter.

This article already resides in Topsy-Turvydom in that it is essentially a review of a show that has not yet opened. I will hold this Gilbertian convention by continuing the article more or less backwards.

WHO: Prairie Fire Theatre
WHAT: H.M.S. Pinafore, by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
WHEN: August 5-7 and 13-14; Sunday performances at 3:00pm, all others at 7:30pm.
WHERE: The stage at Normal Community High School
TICKETS: Adults $18.00; Seniors (60+) $15.00; Students (incl. college) $10.00. Group discounts available. Tickets may be purchased at the door.

If you are a devotee of Gilbert & Sullivan's work, you will love this production; if not, ditto. Either way, you will be entertained.

How can I be so certain of this statement? When I first told my musical theatre friends that Prairie Fire was producing Pinafore in the summer, the conversation pretty much echoed one of the running jokes in the show:

"We're doing Pinafore in August."
"What, again?"
"Yes, again."
"What, again?"
"Well...sort of."

Trust me--if you're a G&S fan, you're probably rolling on the floor right now.

To the uninitiated, hearing the best-known works of G&S described as "operettas" equates them with opera, and thus evokes the image of a lot of people standing around and singing very high or very low about subjects that are incomprehensible unless you understand Italian or German.

However, Gilbert & Sullivan were not of that ilk. They wrote of themes to which the common man could relate; they were social commentators. In a very weird way, they were the Monty Python's Flying Circus of the Victorian Era. Their themes are absurd, their situations ridiculous, but they make a very telling point with regard to social convention. There is an edge to the humor. The music is grand, intricate and powerful; it lifts the spirit, crushes the soul and draws the laugh with equal facility. It was groundbreaking stuff for the late 1800's, and is the reason G&S are held with such esteem.

This esteem, unfortunately, has led to many directors of Gilbert & Sullivan playing the ends of the directorial spectrum. They either stage a production dripping with so much respect for the writers that the humor ends up hiding below-decks, or let it all drift into such a campy mess that the cast's constant winking at the audience comes near to triggering seizures. In light of this, it's hard to fault the people whose eyes glaze over when you mention G&S; to them it's more like G&S&M.

For the current Prairie Fire production, Gwen De Veer (in her directorial debut) strikes a wonderful balance. She clearly "gets" what G&S were going for in writing this operetta, and brings that out in the cast performances. She is also a trained actress and singer, and so allows the cast members to explore their own ideas for their characters without compromising her vision for the show. The result is a show in which the cast is thoroughly invested from overture to grand finale. Joyous performances and often-madcap antics are held together (and occasionally under control) by amazing vocal performances, all of it remaining in context and focused on the central themes of the libretto. This may be one of the truest presentations of Gilbert and Sullivan's material. Don't believe me? Come see the show and then compare it to the events shown in the G&S pseudo-biopic "Topsy-Turvy." You'll be better for both experiences.

For those of you who are not familiar with H.M.S. Pinafore (or, as I was until about two months ago, eternally confusing it with Pirates of Penzance), here's the basic plot:

Captain Corcoran of the British vessel H.M.S. Pinafore has a beautiful daughter, Josephine, who he plans to marry off to the First Lord of the Royal Navy--the Right Honorable Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B. Josephine, however, is in love with Ralph Rackstraw, one of her father's low-born sailors; and he loves her in turn. She understands the restrictions of class, agrees to abide by her father's wishes, and vows that Ralph will never know of her feelings for him. Mistaking her hesitation in accepting his proposal as concern over his "exalted rank," Sir Joseph assures her that "love is a platform upon which all ranks meet." Thus heartened, Josephine confesses her love to Ralph and they plan to elope. Captain Corcoran is tipped off to their plan by his most hideous seaman, Dick Deadeye, and rushes to stop them. Sir Joseph discovers the plot and it appears as if nobody will live happily ever after...but for a dark secret revealed by an unexpected source.

Josephine is played by both Lindsay Eckhardt and Carolyn Pircon; each brings a powerful soprano voice to the role, as well as a unique blend of poised Englishwoman and petulant girl-child. Her father, Captain Corcoran, is portrayed by Brandon Albee with appropriate fatherly concern tinged with a bit of ambitious toadying. Michael Schneider is the remarkably fine fellow Ralph Rackstraw, projecting emotional earnestness and almost terminal bewilderment as events unfold around him. The role of Buttercup is also double-cast with Kate Rozycki and Jennifer Lumsdon, who each have a solidly different take on the flirtatious and yet matronly. In the catalytic role of Sir Joseph Porter, we have Yours Truly. With so many earnest and serious characters already on deck, I opted for a more unconventional portrayal that is supported by the director. Another catalyst is Dick Deadeye, played for all its self-aware grotesqueness by Matt Skibo. Rounding out the primary cast is Cousin Hebe, leader of Sir Joseph's entourage of female relatives, played to the fawning hilt by both Dana Anderson and Samm Bettis. Supporting them is a chorus of more than a dozen excellent voices and actors as the crew of the Pinafore and the rest of the relatives. Far from the frequent "park and bark" type of chorus, these folks are an active part of every scene.

Casting was based primarily upon vocal ability, and this comes out in the music that makes up 85% of the show. The performances are joyous, earnest and honest. As a cast we are having the time of our lives on stage; we're certain you'll do the same in the audience.

So there you have it -- all the reasons you need to see H.M.S. Pinafore this weekend or next, charmingly provided by Mr. Kevin Paul Wickart. Thanks, Kevin! For more information, including ticket info, click here.


  1. Thanks for this post, Kevin. It says just what needs to be said about G&S. It can be so delightful if the production is pitched just right: trusting the material, neither stately nor campy, played "for real" but with that indefinable comedic tilt. This production sounds wonderful; I wish I could travel to see it.