I am generally not a forced gaiety and audience-participation kind of guy. And yet Saturday night, there I was some 20 minutes before show time for H.M.S. Pinafore, in Olney Theatre’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, tossing little stuffed animals back and forth to unnervingly cheerful guitar and ukulele playing thespians clad in pajamas, as well as with an affable floor manager wearing a large teddy bear suit over her head set. This, I thought to myself, is not my mother’s Gilbert and Sullivan.
At camp when she was in high school, she accompanied G&S productions on the piano and to this day can—while dicing carrots for a salad, for instance—recite ample lyrics from any of their shows at the drop of a hat, like some living G&S jukebox.
Did I mention that the pajama-clad players were, in that warm-up period, singing pop tunes by Credence Clearwater Revival, the Proclaimers, and so forth, and that they were simultaneously jumping on bunk beds, whizzing down a sliding board, or romping in a pit full of pillows?
H. M. S. Pinafore
closes August 19, 2018
Details and tickets
Gilbert and Sullivan are turning in their graves, no doubt. But then, they were turning restlessly in their beds more than a century and a half ago as theater troupes, particularly in these unruly United States, were ripping off their shows left and right with every kind of bizarre version and adaptation, honoring copyright primarily in the breach of it. Could the famed duo help it if their songs were so ridiculously intoxicating that performers would have at them any which way, never mind the licensing fees?
And so, traditionalists be warned. But everyone else? Come on in! Especially families with children through the tween years. (Teenagers? Hmm. They’ll roll their eyes at you but may well secretly enjoy it. Go ahead. Roll the dice.)
“But my child has attention issues and can be a bit hyperactive,” you say with trepidation. No worries! Trust me, this cast has far more attention and hyperactivity issues than your child any day, and they’ll make sure that your kid will stay unglued to her or his seat for the entire 80 minutes of this production—and the one-minute intermission, during which one dude was serenading my section with a Fountains of Wayne tune just in case we got hopelessly bored during an unstructured 60 seconds.
Indeed, the only problem with Saturday’s audience was that there were too many grownups in it. I suspect they reviewed Olney’s season in the mailing they got, saw Pinafore, didn’t look too closely at the description, and put it on their fridge calendar. Then they walked into the theater wondering where the orchestra was and why there was a cash bar next to the lighting and sound booth.
The Hypocrites take every liberty with the tale of love and class divides, abridging and ad libbing and adding goofy double-entendres about the poop deck, even sneaking Bruno Mars’s song “Marry You” into a key moment of the plot. They also reverse role genders. The good-hearted sailor here is Ralphina (Dana Saleh Omar), not Ralph; poor little Buttercup is a sizeable fella with a beard (Matt Kahler); Sir Joseph has become Dame JoAnne (Lauren Vogel); Captain Corcoran is Captain Cat (Tina Munoz Pandya); Josephine, the captain’s daughter, is now Joseph (Mario Aivazian), the captain’s son; Dick Deadeye is a very-smelly Dot Deadeye (Aja Wiltshire); and so on. Topsy-turvy has been turned topsy-turvyer. But what are you gonna do, take a company called the Hypocrites to small claims court? (“Your honor, I took these Hypocrites at their word.”)
The singing is more than solid, and in some cases, as with Aivazian and Vogel, downright impressive. Director Sean Graney and music director Andra Velis Simon, with their antic pacing and sparse arrangements, somehow make it all work.
About that orchestra? Uh, it’s been replaced by the players’ aforementioned guitars and ukuleles, and banjos, mandolins, flute, toy piano, spoons, slide whistle, whatever. And while the cast members sing and play and move about, you’re constantly in their way. See, you too are in the pillow pit, on the bunk beds, on the upper platform, or headed down that sliding board. So they point at where they’re headed or tap you on the shoulder, and off you go to someplace else, in the nick of time, grabbing your backpack or purse, and your drink and your chips too.
It’s called chaos. No, actually, it’s called promenade—or site-specific—theater, which has an illustrious history and deep theoretical underpinnings and zzzzzz. The point, as the Hypocrites explain, is that they don’t pretend you’re not there, so you shouldn’t pretend you’re not there either, which even for a stick in the mud like me is pretty darned refreshing, at least now and then.
The kids freakin’ love it. I saw high fives and wide eyes and belly laughs. Think of this as the gateway drug you want your child to be exposed to. From here it’s a slippery slope to musicals and traditional operetta, and then, look out, the hard stuff—illicit transactions behind dumpsters with a shifty bloke named Wolfram hawking cut-rate obstructed-view tickets to the Ring Cycle.
Just say yes.
Olney Theatre Center presents a production by the Hypocrites and the House Theatre of Chicago of H.M.S. Pinafore. Music by Arthur Sullivan. Book by W.S. Gilbert. THE CREATIVE TEAM: Director, Sean Graney. Music director, Andra Velis Simon. Costume designer, Alison Siple. Lighting designer, Heather Gilbert. Scenic designer, Tom Burch. Sound designer, Kevin O’Donnell. Production stage manager, Miranda Anderson. THE COMPANY: Buttercup, Matt Kahler. Heebies, Shawn Pfautsch. Joseph, Mario Aivazian. Capt Cat/Billi, Tina Muñoz Pandya. Kev’n, Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo. Kinfolk, Steven Romero Schaeffer. Ralphina, Dana Saleh Omar. Dame JoAnne, Lauren Vogel. Tiffini, Leslie Ann Sheppard. Dot/Sailor, Aja Wiltshire. Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.