KEENE, N.H. - Some time ago, I reviewed the 2004 Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society "HMS Pinafore." Recently I found that a new production (2010) has been released as a double feature with "Cox and Box."
"Pinafore" is the "Guys and Dolls" of the operetta world. (The creators called their works operas, by the way.) Every song is at least tuneful and the audience leaves with most of the melodies in their heads, something that simply does not happen with recent "musicals" any more. Add to that the humor of the dialogue and the almost Mozartian mix of serious songs (Josephine’s two arias), Victorian parlor songs (Ralph’s entrance songs), glorious choruses ("We sail the ocean blue," "He is an Englishman"), and one of the most famous waltz tunes ever ("I’m called Little Buttercup").
Stage Director Christine Goff and Musical Director Bernard Kwiram have resisted the tendency to change Gilbert’s lyrics; and if have they added some choreography to the "A British tar" number, it makes sense. I am also delighted that they bring down the curtain--and the house--with a rousing "Rule Britannia," just as happened on the opening night back in 1878.
They also follow the D’Oyly Carte tradition of endless encores of the "Bell" trio, with Sir Joseph getting more and more exhausted with each one. It was a funny idea that a cannon goes off to bring Sir Joseph and his female following of "sisters and cousins and aunts" aboard and to have the ball hit his barge off-stage. But this made him sing his opening songs and speak his dialogue with a torn sleeve, wet coat, and disheveled wig, all of which was visually distracting. Perhaps the shot could have just disturbed the wig.
The cast is a good one: John Brookes (Sir Joseph), William J. Darkow (Captain Corcoran), Dave Ross (Dick Deadeye), and Angie Barttels (Hebe). Oliver Donaldson has the perfect looks for the handsome tar Ralph Rackstraw, while Jenny Shotwell makes a petite and pretty Josephine.
As with many stage shows of all sorts, requiring cast members to speak with an "accent" (usually badly) leads to sloppy English diction. This happens to the otherwise capable Erin Wise as Little Buttercup and Gene Ma as Bill Bobstay. When they sing, however, all is well. And I do, as I have said so many times before, appreciate the singers hitting off final consonants.
The running time without curtain calls is 107 minutes. Hence the need for a shorter work to flesh out the evening.
"Cox and Box" (1866) is just the ticket, with music by Sullivan and words by F.C. Burnand. The Seattle group uses a short version that runs 39 minutes, without curtain calls. It is the silly story of Cox the hatter (Scott Bessho) and Box the printer (Richard Hodson), who rent the same room from the landlord Bouncer (Craig Cantley); but they never meet (except on the staircase) since Cox works all day and Box works all night. However, Cox is given a holidayŠand one can guess the ensuing complications.
The lyrics are nearly as good as Gilbert’s and Sullivan has learned to set the most ridiculous lyrics to serious music. His lullaby to a strip of bacon is both gorgeous and laughable all at once. Bouncer’s "Rataplan" song and his continual use of it to change the subject when things get too hot for him is a parody of the "rataplan" songs in Meyerbeer’s "Les Huguenots" and Verdi’s "La Forza del Destino."
Grand opera gets more of a parody in Box’s long narration of how he faked a suicide (in pretty much the same way that Reginald Perrin was going to do it about 70 years later on television). Listen carefully to Cox’s patter song about getting a day off and you will hear what Larry Hart was going to perfect decades later in "Manhattan" and so many other of his songs: rhymes that come in the middle of phrases rather than at the ends.
I must not forget the excellent contribution of Producer Mike Storie to the success of this company.
All in all, this double feature from Seattle is a Grabbit for lovers of comic musicals, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Sullivan without Gilbert.