GILBERT AND Sullivan have docked at the Temple of Music and Art with a fully seaworthy production of H.M.S. Pinafore. Arizona Theatre Company has rarely, if ever, ventured into 19th-century operetta, but this show seems to have been put together by old hands.
Given ATC's penchant for shifting Shakespeare to Hollywood and drugging Gershwin with Spanish fly, one feared that this Pinafore might spread postmodern poop across the deck, taking its inspiration from Joseph Papp's disco-fied version of Pirates of Penzance of some 20 years ago. Although it might be interesting to see a hip-hop Mikado someday, Pinafore remains very much a Victorian English frolic, and director David Ira Goldstein has wisely remained true to the original conception of writer William S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan.
This is no museum piece, though. Pinafore revolves around class distinctions, satirizing the English preoccupation with position and making a witty argument for social leveling, even while preserving the comfortable old social order in the end. This really isn't so different from America's fascination with no-talent media celebrities and instant new-economy millionaires. American status is as anti-meritocratic as the blueness of English blood, and while we express fine sentiments about building a classless society, we really aspire to thrust ourselves into an entirely upper-class society, and resent not being able to mingle with the cool and the rich.
This is pretty much the problem faced by Ralph Rackstraw, able seaman on the H.M.S. Pinafore. He wishes to marry Josephine, the lovely daughter of the ship's captain, but their different social stations make their love impractical. "At every step," Captain Corcoran warns his daughter, "he would commit grammatical blunders!" Besides, the captain is trying to match Josephine with the venerable Sir Joseph Porter, the Master of the Queen's Navy (a career bureaucrat who's never been to sea).
The captain, meanwhile, also must sublimate certain feelings he harbors for Little Buttercup, a woman with the menial job of provisioning the ships anchored at Portsmouth.
H.M.S. Pinafore is mounted most often by community troupes and colleges (the UA presented its own version a few months ago). It's nice to see a relatively big-budget Pinafore for a change, starting with the cunning scenic design of Drew Boughton and the lovely, only mildly whimsical costumes of David Kay Mickelsen. (One disappointment for historical-costume freaks: Josephine spends most of the nocturnal second act in a black and silver dress typical of Victorian wedding gowns, but she changes into anachronistic white when it's time to sort out the nuptials at the end.)
The irony of professional productions, though, is that a full chorus and orchestra become prohibitively expensive at union rates. ATC's show makes do quite well, thank you, with a chorus of five men and five women, plus a seven-piece pit band. The downsized orchestration was stylishly accomplished by Kenneth LaFave, the former Arizona Daily Star music critic who now toils at the Arizona Republic. LaFave's arrangement sounds like a Victorian salon ensemble that's occasionally interrupted by a Salvation Army band, which is exactly right.
Pinafore poses a serious casting challenge involving the age relationships between certain characters. Explaining that would give too much of the story away, but suffice it to say that ATC, like most other companies, fails to take those details into account. Otherwise, the cast is well chosen. Amy Jo Arrington has the needed ingenue charisma for Josephine, and negotiates her operatic high notes with airy aplomb. Pedro Porro is an endearingly boyish Ralph Rackstraw, and Norman Large is an appealing if befuddled Captain Corcoran. Rebecca Spencer, despite her inconsistent accent, provides a saucy Buttercup, and Marc Cardiff makes misshapen antagonist Dick Deadeye a more sympathetic, less cartoonish figure than usual.
It's Gary Briggle as Sir Joseph and Wendy Lehr as his cousin Hebe, though, who steal the show. Briggle's bug-eyed pomposity and Lehr's largely silent, physical commentary on the goings-on pull Pinafore out of its occasional doldrums. Lehr's been absent from the ATC stage for 10 years, and Briggle's been away for most of that time, as well, but it's obvious why they were such popular figures here in the late 1980s.
The show isn't quite perfect. Each act is slow to weigh anchor, and director Goldstein repeats a couple of bits of shtick to the point of tedium. Still, the production offers many delightful, sometimes subtle touches, including choreographer Patricia Wilcox's brief reference to the cygnets in Swan Lake. Overall, this H.M.S. Pinafore enjoys smooth sailing.
Arizona Theatre Company presents H.M.S. Pinafore Wednesdays through Sundays through December 16 at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets cost $28 to $41, with half-price rush tickets available one hour before curtain at the ATC box office. For information, call 622-2823.