You may have never heard of Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert, but you’ve certainly heard of Gilbert and Sullivan. The two had a run of comic opera hits in England whose popularity propelled them across the pond to America, where that popularity was magnified. Because Gilbert’s father was a naval surgeon, life on the seas and the politics of power were often themes of the librettist. That’s certainly the case with H.M.S. Pinafore, the light yet acerbic jab at patrician politics and love that 2nd Star Productions in Bowie has brought to seafaring life.
Gilbert’s propensity for detail took him to the seaside of Portsmouth to measure and record every detail of a real ship so that his sets would be as realistic when the play opened in 1878. His could have been no more lifelike than 2nd Star’s. Director Jane Wingard has designed a nearly life-size two-level ship so real it makes us feel we’re bobbing along the waves with the crew. The detail is impressive, down to other ships far off in the background.
The gorgeous set anchors (ha, see what I did th… oh never mind) a production that is brisk as a sea breeze. Josephine (Emily Mudd), the captain’s daughter, is in love with Ralph Rackstraw (James Huchla), a lowly deckhand. But she is expected to marry The Right Honorable Sir Joseph Porter (Paul Koch), First Lord of the Admiralty. Porter’s lack of actual seafaring experience is revealed in his admonitions that each order be accompanied by a friendly “If you please.” So does his insistence that class hierarchy has no place on a ship, as all are equal. Which of course leads Josephine and Ralph to believe it’s clear sailing ahead (uh-oh, I did it ag… never mind) for their love.
As Josephine, Emily Mudd is as bright as the North Star. One second she is perfectly and hilariously melodramatic and camp; the next she is regaling us with the beautiful and haunting ‘Sorry the Lot Who Loves Too Well.’ It’s as professional a performance as you’ll see on any stage. Her vocal chemistry with Huchla’s soaring tenor is thrilling, especially when the two square off on ‘Refrain, Audacious Tar,’ as she pretends to play hard to get when he professes his love.
Huchla in fact leads a male chorus whose harmonies brilliantly permeate the show’s group numbers but are especially in evidence on the a capella sailors’ boast ‘A British Tar.’
As Porter, Koch is quite funny, and his musical explanation of how he rose to his position through sheer ineptitude, ‘When I Was a Lad,’ is a comic delight as well — if only we could hear all of it. In giving his refined fop a constricted manner, Koch, at least on opening night, allows that manner to impede the rat-a-tat of so many of Gilbert and Sullivan’s staccato lyrics, thus forcing the audience to strain to understand what’s being sung. I hope he can crank the volume a bit; his performance is too good to miss.
Brian Binney brings a pleasant baritone to the role of Captain Corcoran, and to the captain’s reluctant flirtation with Pam Shilling’s beautifully sung Little Buttercup, the dockside vendor who harbors (there I go …) a deep secret. As the humpbacked, twisted-legged, one-eyed Dick Deadeye, Nicholas Mudd is so in character that the deformed leg maintains its twistedness even during the dances.
Music director Joe Biddle understands that lyrics are key in a comic opera, so he ensures that his very good orchestra plays a less-is-more supporting role. There’s even a nice glossary of nautical and other terms in the playbill to help us track the language of the day.
2nd Star’s H.M.S. Pinafore sparkles like sunshine on the sea. It’s a funny and very well-sung comic opera that gives us all the charm that made it a hit more than a century ago.
About two hours, including intermission. Choreographer: Christine Asero. Costumer: Hillary Glass, Lighting/sound designer: Garrett Hyde.
Thru Nov. 19: FSa 8pm, Su 3pm, plus 3pm Nov. 19, 2nd Star Productions, Bowie Playhouse, $22 w/discounts, rsvp: www.2ndstarproductions.com.