The Durham Savoyards, Ltd.

It’s that time again: The irrepressible Durham Savoyards have mounted their annual production of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta at the Carolina Theatre of Durham – one weekend only! This year it is H.M.S. Pinafore, and what a sweet ship she is.

Subtitled “The Lass that Loved a Sailor,” the two-act songfest is all about the elevating – and leveling – effects of love, and the libretto includes innumerable witty lines, all delivered with panache by the seasoned cast, under the direction of Derrick Ivey, who also choreographed the movement. There are some winsome segments – very charming – such as the moment the females of the chorus make a wave; and the arrival of Little Buttercup, when the male sailors carry on behind her back.

Played with flair and sass by Virginia O’Brien, Little Buttercup just about stole the show on preview night. Apparently O’Brien had not been on stage for 30 years – but her career teaching musical theatre to middle-schoolers was not in vain. Her voice was excellent and easily heard; her diction clear, her timing delicious and her “round and rosy” person adorable to audience and Captain Corcoran (the always strong Jim Burnette) alike.

Lauren Hussey’s lovely voice graced the Captain’s daughter Josephine, and paired beautifully with that of her love, sailor ‘fore the mast Ralph Rackstraw, well-played and sung by Mitchener Howell. Director Ivey gives them lots of cute stage business that they carry off with gusto.

Gusto was the word for all of this performance. John Adams, The Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B, First Lord of the Admiralty, was deliciously dry as he inspected the sailors, telling how he became First Lord by sticking to his desk and never going to sea. His unimpassioned pursuit of the Captain’s daughter came to an appropriate end as he was scooped up by his “cousin” Hebe (Marcia Bridges, excelling in her physical comedy).

The three featured sailors, Dick Deadeye (Scott Sino), the Boatswain (Henry Coates) and the Carpenter (Matthew Lubin) all had strong voices and much to do on stage as they pursued their various ideas of correctness and solidarity. Sino gave Dick Deadeye a skeptical slitted eye and a pugilistic bent that made him a match for the looming Boatswain.

An interesting sidelight: When G&S wrote Pinafore, shipping was well into the rapid transition from sail to motor power, but many ships built in that period had both, and thus still needed deadeyes (a kind of block without pulleys) to tighten the shrouds. The word deadeye” would have still been common currency in a country so defined by naval matters, whereas now it just sounds slightly threatening. No deadeyes (or sails) were visible on Jenni Becker’s excellent set (she also did the lighting – generally strong, but the follow-spot operator wasn’t quite on the spot during preview) with its decks, hatches and bridge, its smokestacks and pennants flying. Costumer Anna Rayno-Quirk took us well away from the deadeye era, with 1940s-style dresses and suits.

It wouldn’t be Gilbert and Sullivan without the music of course, and the Durham Savoy Opera Orchestra, conducted by Alan Riley Jones, was its usual self, sprightly and energetic. Sometimes the balance between the orchestra and the singers tilted and the lyrics were muted, but I had less difficulty with that this year than any other of the Savoyards’ performances (perhaps because I sat upstairs for the first time). It didn’t really matter in the long run if one missed a few words, because the sounds and the actions filled in the story – but one does hate to miss those bon mots.

Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are meant for pleasure, and this production, bubbling with amusing stage activity and fizzy humor, delivered the most pleasure of any I’ve seen by the Durham Savoyards.

The production continues between the red velvet curtains of the Carolina’s Fletcher Hall, Queen Victoria in attendance, through the 17th. See our sidebar for details.