According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Friday, March 16, 2007

H.M.S. Pinafore

A revitalizing restaging of the singing sailor classic, the Vortex’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore makes 19th century satire funny again through cross-dressing, baby-farming, and a good dose of Gilbert and Sullivan silliness.

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Reviewed by Cait Weiss

Thank goodness somebody finally got it right – a restaging that proves all our History of Theater professors weren't just joshing with us: Gilbert and Sullivan really were hilarious.

Vortex Theater Company’s current production of H.M.S. Pinafore (to battle the masters of musical puns with their own weapon) hits all the right notes. Gilbert and Sullivan’s work is often treated with the same stale reverence as Shakespeare’s comedies – the contrived accents, the elitist acknowledgement that we should think this is all incredibly clever, the growing struggle to hide our own boredom as the hours drag by.

The Vortex’s H.M.S. is an entirely different type of show – and enjoyable one, shockingly enough. And whether it’s incredibly witty operetta or not, what matter? At the end of the aria, it’s damn good fun.

There are many reasons to be taken with this production, not the least of which is that Vortex seems to be run by raving lunatics. What could possibly be a worse fit for a tiny theater and a seven-person cast than a lavish maritime musical extravaganza? It’s like remaking Cameron's Titanic in a bathtub with Rubber Ducky in lieu of Leo D. – yet this down-sized H.M.S. is truer to its source and more vital to the audience than any of the Oprah-endorsed or American Airlines-aided shows I’ve seen on Broadway. The money may be small here, but the pay-off is big – precisely because the risks Joshua Randall, Vortex’s artistic director, took are huge.

One such risk was double-casting (and, in one fantastic feat of entertainment, triple-casting) the show. David Macaluso, who plays Sir Joseph, Buttercup and an unnamed Sailor, makes the most of his multiple personalities, playing each one with such personalized care, it takes a few scenes to realize it’s all the same actor. Once Macaluso lets you in on the joke, though, amazement quickly flips to admiration and infectious amusement – you watch the glimmer in Macaluso's eye as he shuttles back and forth between roles, changing costumes onstage behind his cast-mates, all the while reveling in the ridiculous self-conscious witticisms of Gilbert and Sullivan’s writing.

The quintessential element of a Gilbert and Sullivan show (an element that Macaluso and his fellow cast members all aptly convey to the audience) is the wink-wink-nod-nod of cleverness. These two smarty-pants scribes aren’t simply clever, they are clever about the act of seeming clever; in other words, they satirize satire as much as they satirize anything else. Often, though, actors take this as an opportunity to put themselves above the story.

Macaluso, Nick Kauffman (an excellently satisfied Captain Corcoran played with the same sort of distorted contentment Ricky Gervais exudes in The Office), Billy Ernst (a slimy yet sympathetic Dick Deadeye), Paul Sigrist (a semi-dandy of a sailor), Jendi Tate (a fabulously fraught Josephine) and Max Miller (a dashing Ralph Rackstraw full of entirely on-the-spot, over-the-top male-lead swoons) all flesh out the action of the show by both acknowledging the satirical message while fully committing to the intricate quirks of their characters’ objectives. This cast is not above the story, but they may very well be beside it – their performances are high camp, not meta-criticism, thank God, and when they laugh, they laugh with the characters as well, and not solely with the librettists.

Dave Dalton, the show’s director, chose to shape this production on Gilbert and Sullivan’s follow-up publication The Pinafore Picture Book: The Story of H.M.S. Pinafore, instead of on the original show itself. While this choice would be fabulous if only for paring the production down to a svelte 90 minutes, the alternative source material also allowed Dalton, along with musical director Edward Barnes and choreographer Carrie Cimma, to reshape the entire show. High camp is no stranger to musical theater, but legitimate justification for high camp certainly is. By framing the production around a little girl’s favorite book, we enter into a world of boundless imagination, mirthful contrivance, and completely outlandish characters – in other words, the world of H.M.S. Pinafore – and we enter it alongside a child (played by a jubilant Sarah Hartley), willingly and without reservation.

It’s not often that a 130-year old production lives up to the hype it garnered more than a century ago. Plus they throw in seamen jokes, a falsetto-singing man in a bright red tutu and choreography that turns into a make-out session with dolls. Gilbert and Sullivan would be so proud.

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Sanford Meisner Theater (164 11th Avenue, between 22nd & 23rd St)
Tickets (, 212.352.3101): $18.00
Performances: March 5th through March 31st, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Sunday matinees at 5pm.

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