The genre of light opera may seem like an odd one to 21st century audiences but only if you think about it too much. Productions in that niche pop up on theater calendars everywhere from high schools to Broadway. It can be tricky for small productions with all the singing the genre indicates.
Light opera throve as opérette and opera buffa in France and Italy, respectively, and spread across Western Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. In England, as it moved into the modern-in-its-own-odd-way Victorian Era, the state of musical theater was considered, well, rather "low" in its nature — mostly risqué burlesques. The time was nigh for someone to step in and lift the brow a tad higher: Enter W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, and the rest is history. Gilbert and Sullivan's plays have endured to this day, spanning the world. The lads were trailblazers. The duo's work has endured; you may have hummed a song from one of their plays while buying artichokes at a farmers market (and if not, then why?) without even realizing the origin. North Coast Repertory Theatre has proof positive of that lasting appeal with its production of HMS Pinafore, one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most rollicking, fun works. And NCRT makes it work on so many levels that it comes through smashingly.
The material of ol' G&S sort of defies any serious analysis, so it's best to focus on the fact that it embraces general silliness, although in a very focused and snappy way, and Pinafore is a great example of this. Also, it's a work that lightly satirized the English class system as it existed in the 1870s and plays with absurdity to great results. That Pinafore takes place almost entirely aboard the titular vessel or in dock, thus involving sailors, a captain, an odd admiral and the like, just makes it all the more fun.
At the center of all this is one able seaman of the Royal Navy, Ralph Rackstraw (Jordan Dobbins), who pines for Josephine (Jessie Rawson, recently seen in NCRT's Reefer Madness), who happens to be the daughter of Rackstraw's boss of the boat, Captain Corocan (Craig Benson). Connected to all this is Corocan's ongoing chatter throughout the play with Little Buttercup, played by Eiizabeth Harrington, who does a fine job start to finish with a very fun role. Josephine has strong feelings for young Ralph as well but given the intricacies of Her Majesty's navy and all its moving parts, her father wants her married off to the rather daftly eccentric Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Joseph (Michael Thomas).
Think this sounds better when sung rather than in print? Yes, and that's exactly the point. And this is where Pinafore, magnificently directed by Humboldt County journeywoman of theater Carol Lang, really benefits from its cast: Rawson, as Josephine, possesses an amazing voice and holds the stage on her own with aplomb. Dobbins, who does sings tenor as Ralph, is also great throughout. And Thomas leans into the part of Sir Joseph — already a fun one — gleefully, practically stealing the show. Thomas' Joseph gets some of the best lines of the show, as when he reflects on his rise to the admiralty: "And I polished up the handle of the big front door/ I polished up that handle so carefully/ That now I am the ruler of the queen's navy!"
Worth noting are the costumes done all around by Laura Rhinehart (The Addams Family, Moon Over Buffalo). She mixes it up with the period garb of the queen's navy and the ever-popping up chorus that are Sir Joseph's aunt, cousins and sisters — all them sporting beehive hairdos, colorful dresses and gold shoes. It just feels right. And that gold serves as precursor to what comes in the play's final moments.
Gilbert and Sullivan didn't live long enough to see it (and who knows what they would've made of it all), but they really laid the groundwork for the musical theater that would explode into the mass entertainment it became in the 20th century and endures as to this day. Seeing NCRT's flat-out superb HMS Pinafore is a reminder that with the right players on board, their material works and is pretty timeless. Do swarthy boatswains, farthings to be gilded and bumboat ladies still have a place these days? They sure do.
HMS Pinafore plays at the North Coast Repertory Theatre on Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through June 17, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through June 11. For more information, call 442-NCRT or visit www.ncrt.net.
The fairy-tale fun of Ferndale Repertory Theatre's production of Beauty and the Beast plays on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through June 3, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through June 4. For more information, call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.
Is it too early to stake out a space with a lawn chair for Dell'Arte's Mad River Festival? Probably. The season big-top shows, experimental pieces, cabaret, Folklife Festival and the annual original play runs from June 15 to July 15. Visit www.dellarte.com for details.