THEATER | “H.M.S. Pinafore” at the Guthrie Theater: For better or worse, Gilbert and Sullivan go electric

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I’ve often wondered why, given the healthy audience for the Minnesota Opera and strong demand for musicals at venues from the Orpheum to the Mixed Blood, the Twin Cities don’t see more operetta. The work of Gilbert and Sullivan is rarely seen on local stages; is it a political-correctness thing, or do their shows fall into the uncanny valley between one known quantity (opera) and another (musical theater)? At any rate, the docking of H.M.S. Pinafore at the Guthrie Theater is welcome, even if Joe Dowling’s production won’t do much to stir demand for operetta among the unconverted.

Dowling’s approach, with help from playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, is to lean to the starboard—that is, the Broadway—side of the uncanny valley. Hatcher’s provided new material to firm up the between-song intervals, and Andrew Cooke (music director at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres) has created arrangements that make the 1878 Pinafore sound like dinner theater circa 1978.

The musical arrangements are so contrary to what you might expect that, love ’em or hate ’em, they’re the most distinctive thing about this production. Between the lite-rock drumming and the horn hits, you’ll feel like the ship is about to be boarded by the cast of Hill Street Blues. Some may find this approach fresh and accessible; I found it to be a shoe that didn’t fit.

Arrangements aside, the show is uneven. Some of these songs—”I’m Called Little Buttercup,” “I Am the Captain of the Pinafore”—have entered the canon as undisputed classics of the musical stage, but others drag, and neither the production nor the performers’ characterizations are strong enough to lift the show where it sags. As Captain Corcoran, Robert O. Berdahl is most consistently entertaining; Christina Baldwin also shines as the beautiful Buttercup, and Peter Thomson has some nice moments as the pompous Admiral Porter. Leads Aleks Knezevich and Heather Lindell, though capable (especially Knezevich) vocally and possessing of marquee good looks, deliver flat performances that don’t hold our attention.

The real star of this show—as Dowling acknowledged from the stage at the Friday night curtain call—is choreographer David Bolger. Nearly every song features some form of choreographed dance, and it’s when the performers are dancing that they’re most delightful. The show is collectively stolen by the chorus of sailors, ending one sprightly Anglocentric number with a Full Monty flourish that I suspect will be appreciated by audience members of all nationalities and proclivities. All hail the Pride of Britannia!


Note: June 25 marks the fifth anniversary of the public opening of the Guthrie Theater’s current facility in downtown Minneapolis. In The Tangential, I’ve written a tribute to the Jean Nouvel building, which has proved its worth well.

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