Lamplighter’s HMS Pinafore Review – Nationalism Trumps Class

Lamplighters 2019 Pinafore. Photos by Lucas Buxman
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HMS Pinafore, the satiric  Gilbert and Sullivan light opera, in the guise of a ship of the line, has sailed into the bay area again, carrying  serious themes, humorously explored in song and dance. Pinafore’s plot is driven by the absurdities of classic British class divide. A common sailor and captain’s daughter secret love for each other is shyly revealed and abruptly thwarted by class privilege  that is then ironically subverted by the absurd workings of  privilege itself, delighting the audience.  Pinafore’s plot takes on renewed relevance in an era of rising class divisions that appear to  be emulating traditional British divides, long  thought to have been sloughed off by the American Revolution. 

Steve Kahlich as Boatswain, Bill Neely as Dick Deadeye, photo by Joe Giammarco

In this  stirring Lamplighter performance, a cast with serious operatic skills and heft carries this light opera to a higher loft. Patrick Hagen is in superb voice as the British tar whose love for a Captain’s daughter is koshered by the revelations that he was switched at a tender age by a nursemaid’s inattention. Gilbert and Sullivan’s typical device of righting class misplacements pulls the sting of their class critique, while leaving behind a residue of the absurdity of hierarchical distinctions induced by birth. Ellen Leslie is in fine voice as  Josephine, the winsome Captain’s daughter whose initial resolve to  on uphold tradition militates against her personal interests, yet rises to the occasion and becomes determined to overthrow convention. Michael Grammer, in strong voice,  is a commanding stage presence  as  Captain her father. F Lawrence Ewing, is his always ironic and playful self, everyone’s favorite, as Sir Joseph, whose assiduity as office boy propelled him to the Admiralty’s first Lordship. 

Michael Grammar as Captain, Sonia Gariaeff as Buttercup, Joe Giammarco Photography

Sonia Gariaeff ably sings “Poor little” Buttercup, a petit bourgeois tradesperson, who comes on board, ostensibly with comfort goods for sale to sailors  but also as a bearer of secrets that have explosive class structure destruction potential. William Neely is an effective latter-day Tieresias with his sly predictions, carried on a limp. The Tars are sprightly in new outfits  by Costume Designer Judy Jackson, realized  by her Canada College Costuming class. Baker A. Peeples, Music Director and Conductor, a  long-term Lamplighter, waved from the orchestra pit after an effective, well received play, appreciated by cast and spectators alike. Abby Green, shines as Cabin Boy. As usual, the chorus is the message in a Lamplighter performance with Tars, sisters, cousins and aunts, joyously singing their all. While some spoken lines were almost lost due to under-projection and under-miking, vocals whether individual or group arrived forcefully.  

Lamplighters 2019 Pinafore. Photos by Lucas Buxman

Contemporary context closes in on Pinafore, infusing 19th century  content with early 21st century meaning. Usually read as a spoof of British class structure, English nationalism arises from background to attention forefront in this 2019 production. “For he is an Englishman,” performed  at the advent of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s  impending departure from the European union, takes on a perfervid meaning, expanding the  salience  of various nationalisms mentioned, whether  British, Prussian, Russian,  Persian etc. Moreover, the absence of Scottish, Irish and Welsh identities from the mix, spotlights an English identity yearning to break free from a British leash. More than a century before the establishment of the European Union, the persistence of  various  European nationalisms is highlighted and the conundrum and possible contradiction of a British identity encompassing an English nationalism with breakout potential is mooted. Captain Corcoran’s temporary banishment due to expressing a mild swearword is a reminder that Internet language  policing has a long history.

Chorus men top of Act 1, and our wonderful set, photo by Lucas Buxman

At 7 pm  weekday evenings in the 1950’s  the New York Times classical music station offered a Gilbert and Sullivan potpourri.  Culled from the recordings of the Doyly-Carte troupe, then still performing in the UK, recruiting this reviewer to appreciation of their wit and wisdom.  Despite  a Newcastle stint, he missed a regular curated Gilbert and Sullivan experience until joining the region and rediscovering an early appreciation of musical satire to which Bay area residents have privileged access, likely more so than available in contemporary London. With the Doyly Carte troupe long gone, Lamplighters has picked up the torch and relights it through a regular performance schedule, that crisscrosses the region form San Francisco, to Livermore, Walnut Creek and Mountain View. A wonderful musical heritage is renewed and revivified with new tradition, like the Lamplighters performers appearing in costume in the lobby at the close of every performance to greet and be greeted.

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