By Philip Pearce
Saltshaker Theater opened its new Monterey Gilbert and Sullivan Festival at the Bruce Ariss Wharf Theater last Friday with a double bill that linked the beloved favorite H.M.S. Pinafore with the less familiar Trial by Jury.
Ken Cusson, like every director of musicals, probably dreamed of a full cast of triple threat singer-actor-hoofers. But a limited audition pool often means deciding whether to use actors who can sing a bit or singers who’ll have a go at acting and dancing. This Pinafore does better by Sullivan’s music than it does by Gilbert’s words. The blithe and lovely music comes across happily enough, the bits of libretto between tunes are a bit of a drag. Gilbert’s plots are satiric soufflés. As with Wilde or Coward, they need a light incisive and brisk touch. Lacking that careless élan, no amount of tomfoolery will compensate.
Principle players Jared Hussey, Keith Wolhart and Suzanne Wood, sing delightfully, as do most of the cast, the exception being Guy Francis, who in the key comic role of Sir Joseph Porter, adopts a kind of speak-along, hum-along Rex Harrison style that is amusing but sometimes delivers musical punch lines in a mumble.
The small male chorus of seagoing sailors and courtroom hangers on, headed by an indefatigable Brian Balistreri, do some particularly fine vocalizing between bouts of overworked horseplay.
Vocally right on the button, Kathryn Hart seems too young, pretty and un-menacing as Little Buttercup. I was also puzzled that she boarded the Pinafore curiously unequipped for her job of selling the sailors all kinds of goodies, from tobacco to hair ribbons, yet offered none of these items on a tray or on a pushcart and didn’t even carry a measuring tape or a money bag. Mail orders only?
It’s physically darker colored than the usual Pinafore. Fair enough, but I felt Kathryn Hart again, now in her backstage role as costume mistress, dressed herself and high-born heroine Suzanne Wood in dark, muted tones that were way out-dazzled by the fancy finery of the sisters and cousins and aunts of the female chorus.
Even with recycled characters from the other play, it was a good idea to give Trial by Jury a rare airing. It’s short and funny and has one gem of a piece of male fantasizing when the accused Ralph from Pinafore, sings “O gentlemen, listen, I pray.” (He’ll marry this lady today and marry the other tomorrow). But the play has none of the rollicking variety of Pinafore, so I questioned the wisdom of tacking it on to the end of the evening. Wouldn’t Pinafore’s splashy flag waving finale, filled with all those heart-warming reprises of earlier hit songs, make a better climax for the double bill than the nice but small-bore charms of Jury?
Be that as it may, Cusson has made it clear that a chief aim of the festival is accessibility. He wants to ease 21st century audiences into Victorian operetta. So the program abounds in information about the famous composer-librettist duo. Cusson and John Fair even take on the roles, respectively, of Sullivan and Gilbert, appearing from time to time in a little boxed alcove just outside the proscenium arch, where they chat and discourse about the historic and social background of the G and S oeuvre in general and Pinafore in particular.
I’m not sure this is a useful sales strategy. It’s not easy to catch everything they say in those fancy accents. And mightn’t all the factual background input scare off more ticket buyers than it lures in? To me, it does what bad teaching has done to make people scared of Shakespeare, turning theater pieces created to entertain into distant academic subject matter to be absorbed as theatrical history. Do we really need always to understand every sight and sound we experience in the theater? The G and S shows have lasted nearly a century and a half because they are frothy send-ups whose ethnic flourishes may be unfamiliar but whose basic story lines could be understood by the average third grader. Ralph loves Josephine. Ralph loses Josephine to a lot of pompous goofs. The goofs are thwarted. Ralph gets Josephine. Tunefully. Charmingly. Stop fretting about all those peripheral Britishisms. Sit back and enjoy the sweet sounds and laugh at whichever jokes you might happen to catch onto.
Keep it up and it could become a lot of fun. And no pop quiz at the end.
Pinafore and Jury continued on the Wharf, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 3, until March 16th.