`HMS Pinafore' starts US tour. Lord of Admiralty's bounce enlivens wobbly production

HMS Pinafore Revival of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, directed and choreographed by Brian Macdonald. A hot-air balloon, bright as a rainbow, makes a wobbly ascent to the rafters in the finale of ``HMS Pinafore,'' now at Kennedy Center Opera House here. This new production of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, just beginning a United States tour, is like that balloon flight: It gets off to a bit of a bumpy start, but seems to be heading up toward success.

Buoying it up along the way is the irrepressible score, with its universal appeal to audiences for more than 100 years. The audience on opening night at Kennedy Center, obviously pleased with what it heard, clapped up a storm for encores until star Ron Moody protested in several languages that they had rehearsed only one encore. Then he improvised a few.

It is Moody who really sets the lively pace in this Pinafore as Sir Joseph Porter, who ``polished up the handle on the big front door'' so carefully that he became the ruler of the Queen's Navy. Before he swaggers in, decked to the gunwales in military ruffles and flourishes, the cast doesn't seem to be having much fun. Moody tweaks the comic spirit of this opera and plays it almost as farce at times. When a prop proves rickety, he rolls his eyes and asks, ``Is this ship safe?'' His bounce and banter seem contagious, encouraging the rest of the cast to take this legendary show less seriously.

Program notes indicate that Queen Victoria's famous line ``We are not amused'' was uttered when the monarch saw the premi`ere performance of ``HMS Pinafore'' in 1878. She was not amused by W.S. Gilbert's sendup of the British class system, her government, or his satire of W.H. Smith as First Lord of the Admiralty, whom she had appointed even though he had no naval experience.

Meg Bussert, who has a silver flute of a voice, plays Josephine the captain's daughter, in a droll Victorian style, wafting across the stage carrying a rose that she frequently lofts into the audience. As her sailor suitor Ralph Rackstraw, Michael Brian is terminally earnest. He has a pleasant tenor voice with a bit of a brass edge. It would be interesting to hear Paul Massel, with his bravura voice, in this role instead of that of Bill Bobstay. Poor Little Buttercup is generously played by Arlene Meadows, Captain Corcoran the commander of the Pinafore by David Dunbar, Cousin Hebe by Ruth Croson, and Dick Deadeye by Ted Pearson.

``Oh, Joy, Oh Rapture Unforeseen!'' the finale number, sums up production designer Susan Benson's wonderful contribution with Victorian set and costume designs. They manage to be witty, pretty, and imaginative.

Director/choreographer Brian Macdonald, who is associate director of musical theater at the Stratford Festival in Canada and who directed last year's Canadian production of ``The Mikado'' at Kennedy Center, may be a better choreographer than director for ``Pinafore.'' His lively cast and chorus prance in fetching style through the numbers, but the direction is otherwise a bit bumpy. At times it seemed soggy and somber, and needed to lighten up. Also, were all those gaffes with the sets accidental or staged? When the audience is unsure, it's uneasy. Right now, the Pinafore balloon is on its way up, but it's still a choppy ride. Next stops after the Feb. 6 close here: Detroit's Music Hall, Feb. 9-13; Boston's Colonial Theatre, Feb. 16-28; and Chicago's Civic Opera House, March 1-6.

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