OLNEY – Imagine what it would be like to have a highly professional and exceedingly talented group of operatic singers and musicians act out Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas – while also jumping in kiddie pools or being dressed in pajamas and having pillow fights! Such marvelous experiences await visitors at the productions by the Hypocrites and the House Theatre of Chicago.
The two groups team up to present wonderfully enjoyable circus-like productions of “The Pirates of Penzance” and “H.M.S. Pinafore” in rotating repertory at the Olney Theater. Audience members can even choose to place themselves in kiddie pools or to be part of a pillow fight!
Both productions are equally excellent, but our review here will focus on “H.M.S. Pinafore,” with the reason becoming apparent later in this article.
The plot to “Pinafore” is as follows: H.M.S. (“Her Majesty’s Ship”) Pinafore is a ship in the British Royal Navy. A captain commands it with a child the captain wishes to place through marriage in the English aristocracy. Yet that child has fallen in love with and wishes to marry someone of lower station. Along the lines of this theme, an aristocrat in charge of the Royal Navy champions the egalitarian notion that “a British sailor is any man’s equal” that is until this ideal is put into practice!
The show thus satirizes the Victorian class-based social system and by implication any social system based on social station rather than merit.
While productions of this operetta are always comedic and farcical, this production takes it to an unexpected level: an expected symphony-style orchestra does not provide music; instead, the ten actors and actresses of the cast play unexpected instruments such as the musical saw, the slide whistle, the banjo, the ukulele and many an acoustic guitar. With so few players, there is also a constant switching of parts, adding to the madcap improvisational atmosphere, and from time to time the talented singers occasionally burst into snatches from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” or “Careless Whisper” by Wham! And there was something about “The Dolphin Disco”.
“The Pirates of Penzance” (the one in the kiddie pool with beach balls!) is similarly excellent, with the actors and actresses from “Pinafore” in very different roles. The Hipocrites’ “Pirates” may serve audience members well whose familiarity with Gilbert and Sullivan is mainly through experiencing a high school production, or perhaps the Linda Ronstadt-Kevin Kline feature film. However, the “H.M.S. Pinafore” may stand out more due to a performance choice that this reviewer initially dismissed as a gimmick: All gender roles are reversed. Thus, “poor little Buttercup” is not merely “round and rosy” but “round and rosy and beardy” as played by the bearded and superbly-voiced Matt Kahler, who also had a hand in adapting “H.M.S. Pinafore” for the Hypocrites.
The captain (the talented Tina Munoz Pandya) is female who, again reversing the traditional script, has a son (played by Mario Aivazian) instead of a daughter whom she is trying to move up into the British upper classes. And the rough-and-tumble character “Deadeye Dick” (wonderfully played by Aja Wiltshire) here becomes “Dot Deadeye.”
Another actress who stands out for fantastic skill and versatility is Lauren Vogel as Dame JoAnne, who sings fast and furious patter songs while strumming a musical instrument – after appearing earlier expertly bowing a violin.
Hearing sopranos sing songs ordinarily reserved for male voices, and tenors singing the parts ordinarily reserved for women, brought out unexpected poignancy for the slower and more lyrical numbers.
More than this, it brought out the determination of character we usually do not see quite so present openly in Buttercup and the flirtatious side of the Captain. Amid all the antics, this added an unexpected degree of depth to this unusual look at Gilbert and Sullivan, as do parts with all characters on stage in acapella.
The show is enormously interactive (there is a snack bar on stage from which one purchases drinks and food during the performance), and many seats are in the middle of the stage among the actors. Children especially will enjoy these productions, though adults will love them as much or even more!
One wonders what Gilbert and Sullivan would have thought of these productions of their work. We cannot know for sure, but lyricist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan possessed a rare and wonderful ability to laugh at themselves, as when in “The Pirates of Penzance” they refer to the other musical as “that infernal nonsense ‘Pinafore!”
For my part, I am forced to conclude that all of these breaks with operatic and even operetta tradition serve to make the show even more completely Gilbert and Sullivan in spirit. Both shows (and especially “H.M.S. Pinafore”) are highly recommended for all ages, and play at the Olney Theatre Center through August 19.