SAN DIEGO — Nobody trivialized the significance of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas more than Sir William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan. In fact, one of the irritations that led to severing their partnership (the ostensible cause was a trivial money quarrel concerning a third party, their producer D'Oyly Carte) was that Sullivan never did understand why Gilbert gave him such improbable stories to compose to.
Of course, if Gilbert and Sullivan shows were "merely" funny, that would certainly be a sufficient raison d'etre. But the fact is that there is a poignancy underlying the class-struggle parody in shows like "H.M.S. Pinafore" that can lift certain songs in it to the level of a rallying cry.
Director Hugh Hudson captured this feeling in his 1981 Academy Award-winning film "Chariots of Fire" when he had Ben Cross, playing Harold Abrahams--the proud runner determined to fight his way into upper-crust acceptance--sing "He Is an Englishman" from "H.M.S. Pinafore."
The current production of the operetta, playing at the Casa del Prado through Oct. 18, is spotty, largely due to an uneven distribution of talent in the cast.
Even so, director Vincent A. Ferrelli seems well aware of just what makes this show unsinkable. He keeps the pace brisk, as conductor Hollace Koman, also the company's artistic director, keeps the music bright. The enduring delights of absurd cards dealt by sincere hands makes quick work of an evening whose glories are over all too soon.
Vicki Pierce is charming as the pink-cheeked and pink-dressed--down to the rosebuds--captain's daughter, Josephine. She has the voice and the comic timing that keep the ingenue from being cloying.
If only as much charisma were forthcoming from the decidedly bland Rankin Fisher as Ralph Rackstraw, the common seaman with whom she is secretly in love. Some of Fisher's songs, especially his early duet with Pierce, are lovely. But as an actor, even the boatswain, as played by David Cross, overpowers him. Cross also has a nice voice; it's a pity he wasn't given a part with more to do.
George Weinberg-Harter, most recently seen as the Lord High Executioner in the last Gilbert & Sullivan Company production, "The Mikado," is back as Sir Joseph Porter, the admiral to whom Josephine is, against her will, betrothed.
And again, Weinberg-Harter plays the pompous part with flair. Though he may have trained at the Rex Harrison school of singing, it matters less here than in "The Mikado." Mincing, lips pursed and eyebrows raised, he blazes comic turns into the straightest of lines.
DeAnna Burk's Buttercup makes one wish there were roles here for two ingenues. She's got the sure voice and the gestures down pat, but trying to imagine this young, lissome presence as the "plump and pleasant" woman who cared for Rackstraw and the captain when they were babies pushes absurdity too far.
Marco di Orsini delights as the hunched and squinting Dick Deadeye, the evil-looking but well-meaning seaman everyone loves to hate. James Tompkins-MacLaine is nicely smug as Captain Corcoran but he fails to project. The chorus at times suffers from self-consciousness but is often fine, especially when Sir Joseph's numerous relations join the seamen.
Ferrelli's staging packs more visual punch off the stage than on--as when the crew members sneak up the aisle with lit candles during Josephine's and Rackstraw's attempted elopement. Part of the culprit is James McCarty's dull though functional set design, which is as drab as Dorothy's Kansas without the promise of an Oz to come.
What color there is on set is provided by Tim Reeve's able lighting and Cindy J. Cetinske's attractive costumes, which are especially nice in the neat distinctions made between the classes of dress worn by the lower-class Buttercup, the middle-class Josephine and the admiral's patrician cousins, sisters and aunts.
While there is much to enjoy in this pleasant, high-spirited production, in the end no one deserves the three cheers given to the former captain of the Pinafore in the final song more than the show's original captains, Gilbert and Sullivan. It is, after all, to their credit that nine years into its second century, the "H.M.S. Pinafore" is still a seaworthy ship.
By W.S. Gilbert and Arthur S. Sullivan. Director is Vincent A. Ferrelli. Musical director is Hollace Koman. Costumes by Cindy J. Cetinske. Lighting by Tim Reeve. Set by James McCarty. With DeAnna Burk, David Cross, Marco di Orsini, Rankin Fisher, James Tompkins-MacLaine, Vicki Pierce, George Weinberg-Harter, Kim Lindley and Robert W. Jones. At 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 18. At the Casa del Prado in Balboa Park, San Diego.