Review: “H.M.S. Pinafore” (The Hypocrites)

(back, left to right) Doug Pawlik and Dana Omar with (front, left to right) Robert McLean, Shawn Pfautsch, Lauren Vogel, Matt Kahler, Christine Stulik and Kate Carson-Groner in The Hypocrites’ world premiere adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. PINAFORE, adapted and directed by Sean Graney.  Photo by Evan Hanover.
(back, left to right) Doug Pawlik and Dana Omar with (front, left to right) Robert McLean, Shawn Pfautsch, Lauren Vogel, Matt Kahler, Christine Stulik and Kate Carson-Groner in The Hypocrites’ world premiere adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. PINAFORE, adapted and directed by Sean Graney. Photo by Evan Hanover.

Show: H.M.S. Pinafore

Company: The Hypocrites

Venue: The Den (Ground Floor)

Die Roll: 37 (on a d%)

Let me start by saying that if you are a huge fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, then this musical offering based on their mega-hit “H.M.S. Pinafore” may not be the right show for you.  Much of what makes the operetta a classic has been stripped from the show (read: the music of Sullivan and wit of Gilbert).  If you aren’t terribly well-versed in G&S pieces, or you enjoy watching generally aimless silliness, then you might appreciate this production.  As for me, I find that I’m somewhere between those two points on the spectrum of theatre-goer.

A bit of context for where I’m coming from, and then a quick summary before I go into my thoughts on the piece.  I feel that I should point out that I’ve been in a total of 7 G&S operetta productions over the years, but only three of the plays (“Pirates” 3 times, “Iolanthe” twice, and “Grand Duke” twice).  I am not really a G&S scholar, nor a fanatic, but I do truly appreciate the music, the construction of their work, and the brilliance of the lyrical, topsy-turvy world that they create.  I’m also not against creative interpretations of their work.  It is in the public domain, after all, and that makes it a free-for-all (literally).  “H.M.S. Pinafore” is a play that I have considered directing, and one of my audition pieces comes from the 2nd act.

Now, that I’ve declared any bias-inducing information, let’s talk about what this production brought forth.  Sean Graney’s adaptation of the operetta cuts it down to a feisty hour and ten minutes.  The general plot is still the same as the original work, but the gender of all of the characters is reversed.  Additionally, many of the songs’ lyrics have been revised to include contemporary references such as “bronies”.  Seating for the play is promenade style and that means that the audience is sitting on set pieces and will periodically be told to move so that action can proceed in the spot where they once sat.  And, finally, the cast members are also the instrumentalists.  Each plays at least one instrument while accompanying themselves and others.

There is a lot of novelty here.  And that can be a good thing.  After all, a piece of Victorian musical theatre probably needs a bit of the dust brushed off.  And yet, this production kept making me ask whether there is a point at which novelty goes overboard and results in schtick merely due to quantity.  The novelty of swapping the genders actually works really well.  It makes the show fun and fresh.  Robert McLean is especially wonderful as Buttercup.  Christine Stulik and Emily Casey are also a lot of fun in their portrayals of Admiral Dame Jo-Ann and Captain Cat Coran, respectively.

Alison Siple’s costumes play into the gender swap really well, too.  The sailors are all in outfits that are either pajamas or scrubs.  Come to think of it, those are often the same thing.  Anyway… The fancifulness of the costumes plays up the fact that this is a ship full of women, rather than men.

Where this production falls apart for me is the promenade seating.  It doesn’t add to the production at all.  I’ve seen other shows where promenade style works well, because the play couldn’t really function without it.  That sort of seamless integration of audience and staging was prevalent in last year’s “Dorian” at The House.  The Hypocrites employ it much less effectively.  None of the staging/blocking that constantly relocated the audience served any true purpose in supporting the rest of the show.  In fact, when during the curtain speech the actor who explained how the audience was going to be moved about, he stated that it would be “because the director told me to stand there”.  And that’s how the action seemed.  Seldom did it seem like there was a well thought out reason for the movement, other than the director having said so.

Additionally, the lyric changes were so drastic at times that one wonders why the company chose to do the piece in the first place.  I left the performance thinking that it was like watching what happens backstage during a long run of a G&S show.  The cast parodies itself while sitting around waiting to go onstage, and so they come up with alternative lyrics.  They say, “What if…” and “Wouldn’t it be funny…”  And normally, that is kept between them as funny anecdotes that they’ll share from time to time afterward, but otherwise the silliness fades to memory.

This production seems to be the direct result of backstage tomfoolery being put on stage without much in the way of a filter or editor.  It is unfortunate, because there are a few moments of true brilliance in this show.  They are surrounded by flotsam and jetsam, however.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  A thought: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

RATING:  d8 = “Not Bad, Not Great”