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The immortal works of Gilbert and Sullivan, though rooted in a particular place and time, draw on the seemingly inexhaustible reservoirs of silliness of the English soul, with a certain not-so-distant relation to the antics of Monty Python. Time was when almost every college and university, and many cities and suburbs, had their own Savoyard troupes, often with several productions a year. Though I have yet to see a production, I understand that the Durham Savoyards will soon be celebrating their 50th anniversary.
The basic materials for any G&S operetta are so primal, the structure of the plot so elemental and the tunes so appealing, that the works are almost indestructible in performance, no matter what reinterpretation a director may choose. For this Meredith production,* offered in Jones Auditorium, stage director Stacie Whitley (Meredith, ’10) placed the happenings of H.M.S. Pinafore aboard a navy-gray battleship, rather than the sailing ship one might imagine, and we were told the action takes places “in the 1970s.” Both of these were rather arbitrary, as nothing further emphasized the place and time (i.e. uniform, behavior, etc.). If (Heaven forbid!) you have never seen the show, the action revolves around the forbidden romance between a sailor, Ralph, and his captain’s daughter, Josephine, who is too far above his station to be his spouse. Her father, Captain Corcoran, would prefer to marry her off to the much better-situated Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty. Machinations ensue, until finally, à la Importance of Being Earnest, mistaken identities resolve the situation to everyone’s satisfaction.
Steve Dobbins (Captain Corcoran) and John Adams (Sir Joseph) are both Durham Savoyard veterans. Dobbins combined an excellent comic presence with a well-tuned and well-produced voice to make a memorable Captain. Adams was more convincing in his spoken lines as the archetypal upper-class English twit than in his singing, although he improved after a weak beginning. Standing out among the cast was the excellent tenor Joshua Collier as Ralph, the romantic lead, with a pleasing tone and excellent command of his high range as well as convincingly sincere delivery of Gilbert’s high-flown oratory. He will do well as he departs North Carolina to study opera at the New England Conservatory. Still needing to mature was his Josephine, whose part has truly operatic demands in terms of technique. Laura Gardea has an attractively produced but still small voice, and her diction was often unclear. Her acting did not match the romantic fervor of her partner, Ralph. Thoroughly comfortable on stage, with a voice which carried every word to the audience, was Little Buttercup, the contralto role, as played by Maegan Coble, a fine singer, though seemingly directed to play the part as a Tarheel, rather than a Cockney “bumboat woman.” Dick Deadeye, who is cast in the original as a highly unsympathetic, unattractive villain (bass-baritone, of course), was played by an alto (Rachel Stenbuck-McKee) without the vocal weight to put the part across, and who was not directed to act the repulsive caricature that the part requires (think Snidely Whiplash…). Conducting for the Sunday matinee was Catie Hitzigrath (Meredith, ’10), the associate conductor.
Nevertheless, the tout ensemble was, of course, as always, irresistible, and the capacity audience certainly went out into the bright sunshine with their hearts high, their toes tapping, and their ears full of Sullivan’s best tunes. Next August: Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience.
*Note: The White Iris Light Opera Company was recently launched by Meredith's Jim Waddelow (who is also Music Director of the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra). The company offers performance opportunities to Meredith vocal and instrumental students, augmented by artists from the community.