STRATFORD, Ont. — Midway through the Stratford Festival’s production of HMS Pinafore, a character upchucks into a bucket.
Welcome to Gilbert and Sullivan — 2017 style.
The moment is unfunny — and therefore typical of the mindless bits of business that afflict Lezlie Wade’s unfortunate production. Yet, the tragedy is that there are some good performers on stage.
Laurie Murdoch, as the First Lord of the Admiralty, potters into view wearing a life jacket — and yes, this is one of the production’s few amusing ideas — to deliver a droll and delightful rendition of When I Was A Lad. Two things become apparent here. The first is that Murdoch is thoroughly at home with the fiendish demands of the patter songs that are such an integral part of the Savoy opera tradition. The second is that the spirited but disciplined work of the chorus and orchestra, under musical director Franklin Brasz, shows a genuine responsiveness to the requirements of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s wonderful music.
You can also cheer the efforts of Mark Uhre, a gangly and likeable Mark Rackstraw, and Jennifer Rider-Shaw, a feisty Josephine, to engage our interest in the operetta’s two young lovers. There’s also a raucously enjoyable Buttercup from Lisa Horner and nice work from Steve Ross, whose stolid captain is in striking contrast to his free-wheeling Nicely Nicely Johnson in the festival’s companion musical, Guys And Dolls.
In brief there are some accomplished performers involved in this production. The unwelcome elephant in the room is its director.
The warning signals appear as soon as the overture begins. The Avon Theatre’s curtain rises to reveal what appears to be the entrance hall of a stately home on England’s South Coast, except that there are nurses and patients running around and some indication that a performance is about to take place.
There comes a point at the end of the overture when designer Douglas Paraschuk’s set abandons the trappings of Downton Abbey and revolves to present us with the deck of a ship and sailors extolling in lusty chorus the delights of the ocean blue.
So what’s going on here? It seems the First World War is in progress and that we’ve been in a convalescent hospital where a performance of Pinafore is in preparation. So what we’re really supposed to be getting is a show-within-a show device.
The first thing to be said is about this opening is that nobody will know what the hell is going on without reading the notes in the printed program. All it will do is cause bewilderment and irritation. Secondly, the whole idea is pointless — a display of cleverness for the sake of being clever. Thirdly, given that the framing device is tiresome and unnecessary, the festival could have saved some money by being content with Paraschuk’s lovely nautical set.
Let’s be clear — the Stratford Festival has enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the Savoy operas. Indeed, over the years Stratford has breathed fresh life into them. Founding artistic director Tyrone Guthrie’s tradition-busting sense of mischief led to a hilarious production of HMS Pinafore that remained true to the work’s comic sensibility while blowing away the dust that was threatening to turn the G and S legacy, increasingly mummified in the productions of the hallowed D’Oyly Carte Company, into bad museum theatre.
It was Guthrie who showed the world that there were other ways of doing Gilbert and Sullivan. And then, decades later, in 1982, director Brian Macdonald and set designer Susan Benson gave Stratford audiences a visually stunning Mikado, and a further G and S revolution was under way.
But Sir Tyrone and Brian Macdonald were always attentive to the wit and the satire. They wanted the comedy to re-emerge freshly burnished. Wade’s 2017 production seems to distrust W.S. Gilbert’s comedy. It is overloaded with distracting bits of business aimed at keeping us otherwise engaged. Hence, the constant fiddling with props and sight gags that fall flat. Hence clunky choreography that integrates uneasily with the material. Hence moments that make absolutely no sense — vomiting into a bucket, Steve Ross’s Captain emerging with a fishing rod to intone Fair Moon, To Thee I Sing, and the weird spectacle of people lugging pieces of furniture up one set of steps and down another.
It is indeed bizarre to have talented and capable performers so much at odds with the production in which they’re appearing. But we can always shut our eyes and just listen.
(HMS Pinafore continues to Oct. 21. Further information at 1 800 567 1600 and str