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Theater: Rough Waters

H.M.S. Pinafore sets sail in a league of its own

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The Fine Arts Center's Repertory Theatre Company production of H.M.S. Pinafore is a tantalizing taste of Gilbert and Sullivan, a succulent sampler of the light-hearted operetta that, ultimately, never fully captures the savory flavoring and intricately orchestrated humor of the original work.

The good ship Pinafore has rarely looked better, thanks to Guy Degerstedt's inventive design. Some of the production's most interesting moments come as the ship makes a 360 degree circle on the stage, moving from a cut-out view from the deck to the crow's nest and the unseen rigging from which the sailors rappel in the opening number, to the sides and stern of the ship, allowing for the "king of the world" external perspective as we view the boat from beside and behind it.

Never judge a ship by its sails, however. The Pinafore's crew is not quite in a league with the show they are performing. The men's chorus is somewhat weak-voiced, although with the exception of a yeoman here and there counting time for the choreography or locking onto the conductor to the point of distraction, they do a good job of bringing enthusiasm and energy to their roles.

One of the pitfalls of staging Gilbert and Sullivan is that the demanding vocal parts often necessitate the casting of strong singers in the lead roles, regardless of their acting abilities. These shortcomings come to life in the stone-faced performances of Chris Lobato as Ralph, and Jeff Gatz as Captain Corcoran. There is no such thing as a G&S character for whom a monotone, mono-visaged interpretation would be appropriate, but there is no shortage of talented singers who have given it a go, and Lobato and Gatz join a thriving fraternity with their understated expressiveness.

Thankfully, the production is blessed by a trio of performers who aptly capture the flight and fancy of the material. Ted Cox creates a confidently devilish Dick Deadeye, turning patter songs into rap and taking it to the top, if not over, in his delirious disco dancing, and Charles Schnetzer provides the production's comic fulcrum in the role of Admiral Sir Joseph Porter.

Schnetzer's entrance late in the first act finally brings the play into the realm we expect from G&S, a virtuoso tour de force of a comic character as the pasty, landlocked ruler of the Queen's navy. His character defies convention, taken to such an extreme with his ghostly white make-up, his anti-gravitational posture and body language -- a combination of an Ed Grimley lead-with-your-waist walk and a Walter Matheau slob slouch -- and his Inspector Clousseau knack for elocution and misfiring dignity. It's a wild caricature of a character, but Schnetzer makes it work, carrying the show on his sloping shoulders from his first entrance onward.

The most balanced and welcome creation gracing the stage is Virginia Henley's Josephine. Henley stands out like a visitor from another cast, combining a beautiful, full voice that only thins out in the highest reaches of the score with a well-crafted character that is so human, so real, so vibrant that we can suspend our disbelief when she falls in love with a dead fish. What Schnetzer and Cox bring to the stage in terms of comic credibility, Henley matches with her rounded blending of singing and acting, the epitome of a G&S heroine, captivating audiences with her inspired ballads and backing it up with convincing characterization.

The production was marred by a flurry of technical difficulties on opening weekend. As good as the sound is in the atmospheric pre-show background of a ship creaking on the sea, the individual microphones amplifying the leads sound that much worse, distorted and overly sensitive to ambient sounds such as breathing, walking, rattling props, or shuffling clothes.

It's come to be expected that modern-day performers in medium-sized venues need amplification to be heard, and it's not unusual to have momentary lapses in technical execution, but the constant ebb and flow of the sound system was enough to make the most hearty wayfarer suffer from seasickness.

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