Punched-Up Topsy Turvy

If there's a heaven, it surely contains a room with David Ira Goldstein's name on the door. Goldstein has, with Arizona Theatre Company's new production of H.M.S. Pinafore, resuscitated Gilbert and Sullivan's most beguiling operetta without deflating its integrity. The director has done away with the stale, mannered nonsense that makes G&S quaint, but (unlike ASU's Lyric Opera Theatre, which last season reworked Pinafore as a frantic farce) Goldstein is never anything but reverent to the original.

Directed with a great eye and a big heart, this is not a purist's Pinafore. It is, therefore, an entirely pleasurable Pinafore, thanks to Goldstein's chutzpah and a thrilling company of professional singers with great acting chops. Goldstein has gladly abandoned the mannered D'Oyly Carte nonsense we expect from Gilbert and Sullivan, and has punched up Gilbert's absurdist comedy without ever changing a word of dialogue. The result is an enchanting revival of this 19th-century chestnut that plays as if it were written last week.

Pinafore, which premièred in London in 1878 and ran for 571 performances, was Gilbert and Sullivan's first big hit. Gilbert's script satirizes the snobbish English class system of the day, in a story of a lowly sailor who has fallen in love with his captain's daughter. Her father has pledged the girl to Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty. Josephine is in love with Ralph, but wants to honor both her breeding and her father's wishes. Enter Little Buttercup, a local hussy and retired wet nurse who upsets the company's classist apple cart with some well-placed gossip.

The thrills begin the moment the curtain rises on this ATC revival: The show's overture has been fashioned into a droll dumb show that introduces most of the supporting players and sets the comedic tone for the evening. Goldstein's greatest gift to the production is its delightfully self-conscious style, which finds Pinafore's people nudging and winking their way through several numbers, acknowledging their audience (and the band conductor) and spoofing their own cornball coexistence with Gilbert and Sullivan.

Amy Jo Arrington is perfect as the moony ingénue, and her beautiful, bell-like soprano brought shouts of "Brava!" on opening night. Rebecca Spencer illuminates Little Buttercup with daffy glee, and strong-voiced Pedro Porro plays Ralph Rackstraw as an amusing mannequin, a handy and effective interpretation of this cardboard cutout of a man.

The high-spirited supporting cast is near perfect, but the evening's biggest laughs belong to Marc Cardiff's Dick Deadeye, a twisted sailor who jerks and twitches his way through a parade of comic moments.

Kenneth LaFave's bright orchestrations are handled by an eight-piece band that sounds like many more players, and Patricia Wilcox's dazzling choreography is best displayed in "Never Mind the Why and Wherefore," with its kick-line clowning and several wacky wind-ups.

The show's visual elements are equally spectacular. Scenic designer Andrew Boughton has created a handsome set with high-flying rigging and below-decks portholes that allow the players to plumb a certain theatrical metaphor, as when Corcoran enacts his lofty station in life by singing from high atop a tall platform, or when poor Dick Deadeye appears from the lowly depths of the ship. Paul A. Black's subtle lighting design marks his first work with the company, and David Kay Mickelsen's costumes comprise a stunning sea of bustles and watered taffeta. The show's uncredited makeup and hair design -- particularly Dick Deadeye's hunchbacked, hook-nosed baldness -- are also first-rate.

Buoyed by ecstatic reviews of its recent Tucson performances, ATC's H.M.S. Pinafore is playing to capacity crowds, and ticket sales have been so strong that the show's run was extended before it ever opened. Musical-theater diehards will be delighted with Goldstein's rhapsodic return to romantic seafaring, and first-time audiences will catch a glimpse of just how glorious Gilbert and Sullivan still can be.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela