'Pinafore' sails here Theater: A sensation when it opened in 1878 in England, the perennially popular Gilbert and Sullivan operetta begins its Baltimore run Friday at Center Stage.

February 08, 1998|By Bill Hyder | Bill Hyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"At present there are forty-two companies playing 'Pinafore' about the country. Companies formed after six p.m. yesterday are not included."

That item appeared in an American newspaper in 1879. Although meant as a joke, it was not far from the truth. "H.M.S. Pinafore" was a theatrical phenomenon, far more successful and influential in its time than "The Phantom of the Opera" in our own.

More than a century later, the show still packs power. When Baltimore's Center Stage decided to produce a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta this season, "H.M.S. Pinafore" was the choice over such other sure-fire titles as "The Mikado" and "The Pirates of Penzance."

A tale of love between a sailor and his captain's daughter, "Pinafore" premiered in London in 1878. After a slow start, it became a smash hit, achieving what was for the time an astonishing run of 571 performances.

Before the year was out, a Boston theater produced the show without troubling to get permission from the librettist, W. S. Gilbert, and the composer, Arthur Sullivan. Like the London production, it was a great success. After that, "Pinafore" spread through the United States like the flu. Productions by professional troupes, amateur dramatic societies, church choirs and schools sprang up in city after city, including Baltimore. According to one source, there were eight simultaneous productions in New York alone.

The lack of international copyright laws encouraged what American newspapers called "Pinafore mania." Nobody had to pay any royalties.

"Pinafore" has remained a favorite in the United States. Here in Baltimore, no decade has gone by without a spate of productions by amateurs, professionals or both.

Some of these performances were not exactly what Gilbert and Sullivan would have wanted. In 1924, a popular comedian named De Wolf Hopper brought his "Pinafore" troupe here. Hopper played the relatively small role of Dick Deadeye, but being a star he built up his part considerably. One of his specialties was Ernest Lawrence Thayer's poem "Casey at the Bat," which he had recited more than 10,000 times in vaudeville. He did not fail to recite it on the deck of H.M.S. Pinafore.

In 1940, the old Baltimore Civic Opera Company performed the show with guest star John Charles Thomas in the comedy role of Sir Joseph Porter. Thomas was a Metropolitan Opera baritone and a bon vivant with a lively sense of humor. His innumerable radio appearances had won him an army of fans, and he had no intention of disappointing them. Toward the end of Act I, he stopped the action, drew the cast and chorus around him, and favored the audience with a gratuitous vocal recital of six numbers, including a Verdi aria.

The city has also seen more authentic "Pinafores," including performances in 1950 and 1956 by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, the troupe founded during the "Pinafore" craze by Gilbert and Sullivan with the producer Richard D'Oyly Carte.

Something new

Surprisingly, although Center Stage has performed many musicals, it has never staged Gilbert and Sullivan. That, in fact, was one of the reasons the company decided to produce one: to give artistic director Irene Lewis the opportunity to try something new.

What drew Lewis to "Pinafore" was its satire of the complex Victorian class system, the picture it offers of people with human emotions struggling against rigid rules of behavior. Such conflict is a director's basic material.

The framework for Gilbert's satire in "Pinafore" is the romantic triangle. The characters represent three levels of society. Captain Corcoran and his daughter, Josephine, are aristocrats. In Victorian times, Royal Navy officers were drawn only from the highest levels of society, and Victorian audiences were well aware of it.

Sir Joseph Porter is a middle-class lawyer and politician who, more by accommodation than ability, has become the Cabinet minister who supervises the Royal Navy. (His title is first lord of the Admiralty, but he is a civilian, not an admiral.)

Sir Joseph is Captain Corcoran's professional superior, but under the Victorian class system he remains his social inferior. He is in love with Josephine. The captain, his ambition overcoming his social pride, is dazzled by the prospect of his daughter marrying a high government official.

Ralph Rackstraw is a member of the working class, an ordinary seaman on Captain Corcoran's ship. He loves Josephine, and she returns his love but is daunted by the social barriers between them. They have the sympathy and support of most of Ralph's shipmates and of Little Buttercup.

Buttercup is also working class. She is a bumboat woman, a peddler who goes on board ships to sell the sailors articles like jackknives, tobacco and sweets. In a subplot, she is in love with the Captain, and he is not insensible to her charms. "A plump and pleasing person," he sings in one of Sullivan's straight-faced recitatives. Again, the social gulf between them keeps them apart.

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