San Diego Comic Opera's spiffy production of "HMS Pinafore" set sail at Balboa Park's Casa del Prado Friday night. One of Gilbert and Sullivan's more seaworthy vehicles, the satirical operetta was given a decidedly arch, quick-paced interpretation by director Leon Natker and his crew. The smartly disciplined cast made the approach entirely credible, giving the company an upbeat finale to an otherwise lackluster season.
"Pinafore," the lovable, tuneful sendup of Victorian social pretentions based on the accident of birth, begs for a clever updating, but this cast invited the audience to wink with them as they mugged and camped through the brightly hued period production. Humorous touches such as an oversized Union Jack that quickly descended whenever the chorus sang the phrase, "For he is an Englishman," provided belly laughs. Natker's mincing sailors extracted subtler smirks by emphasizing the (unintended) sexual double-entendre whenever they lauded hero Ralph Rackstraw's nautical prowess as a great topman. As they say, it was all very nautical--but nice.
Like most of San Diego Comic Opera's productions, this "Pinafore" depended more on dramatic verve than upon winning vocal contributions. As Rackstraw, Peter Craig Morse cut a dashing figure, even if he was a bit flamboyantly coiffed for a common seaman. But his modest tenor voice quickly thinned out as he ascended the scale. Natker found the ideal role as the pompous Capt. Corcoran, strutting about and barking out orders with unchecked relish, although his tenor range proved just as vulnerable on top.
Soprano Dawn Veree Harrison displayed the requisite vocal and physical pulchritude for Josephine, Rackstraw's beloved. She sparkled with operatic verisimilitude in her rapid, cabaletta second-act solos, although her vocal tone did not sustain equal luster in the slower arias. Penelope Hawkins milked the maximum humor from her role as the saucy Buttercup. Even if the quick-witted mezzo-soprano lacked the usual avoirdupois associated with Buttercup, her cloying lower-class accent and flatfooted gait nailed the character.
As Sir Joseph Porter, the punctilious office boy who rose through the ranks to become First Lord of the Admiralty without ever sailing a ship, Joseph Grienenberger gave the evening's most winning performance. His rich bass-baritone generously encompassed both lyrical and patter songs, and his every inflection captured Sir Joseph's ideological duplicity.
Other laudable singers included Richard Wright, whose booming baritone propelled his aptly unlovable Dick Deadeye, and mezzo-soprano Fran Bjorneby as Sir Joseph's matronly, moralistic Cousin Hebe. Baritone Ed Hollingsworth as boatswain's mate Bill Bobstay kept the pace lively with his thoughtful, energetic prodding.
A slightly expanded (for this company) 15-piece pit orchestra got off to a shaky start, but conductor Roger Alden Anderson pulled his musicians in line once the good ship "Pinafore" hit the high seas. J. Sherwood Montgomery's cheery single-set ship's deck gave the Pinafore crew ample room, especially for their neatly devised--but uncredited--dances with Sir Joseph's sisters, cousins and aunts. Pam Stompoly's smashing, vibrant costumes for the ladies made the show a visual feast.
San Diego Comic Opera may have given up its Gilbert and Sullivan-only identity, but it still does the Savoyard repertory best.
Lyrics by W.S. Gilbert, music by Arthur Sullivan. San Diego Comic Opera production directed by Leon Natker; conducted by Roger Alden Anderson; with Joseph Grienenberger, Leon Natker, Peter Craig Morse, Richard Wright, Ed Hollingsworth, Charles Ethridge, Dawn Veree Harrison, Fran Bjorneby and Penelope Hawkins. J. Sherwood Montgomery, set design; Pam Stompoly, costume design; R. Timothy Osborn, lighting design. At the Casa del Prado, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2:30 p.m.