Hilarity Heats Up The Harmony In MSMT’s ‘HMS Pinafore’

Pop-Art inspiration highlights the humor In Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s first big hit, running July 11-29

Allentown, Pa (June 30, 2012) – When Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore” opens July 11 at Muhlenberg College, aficionados will see the 19th century operetta they know and love, says director James Peck. But they will also see the bright colors and bold lines of the Pop Art era of Warhol and Rauschenberg, from which the production draws inspiration.

“The show will appeal to traditionalists and satisfy them. It’s a faithful production,” Peck says. “But it will also definitely win new fans. It’s a 134-year-old Victorian show filled with comedic and melodious moments, and we’re color-washing it—making it Technicolor.”

Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre, now in its 32nd season, presents “HMS Pinafore” July 11-29, in the Baker Theatre. Peck, chair of the Theatre & Dance Department, will direct the show; Ed Bara and Muhlenberg alumna AlexJo Natale will provide musical direction and choreography, respectively.

“What makes ‘Pinafore’ so unique and special is the pure humor rubbing up against some of the most beautiful music,” Peck says. “It’s simultaneously absurd and beautifully serious.”

Librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan’s first big hit, “HMS Pinafore” is full of hijinks and silliness, as well as the pair’s trademark wit, satire, and melodic songs. Ralph Rackstraw, a sailor aboard the HMS Pinafore and “the smartest lad in the fleet,” is in love with the ship captain’s daughter, Josephine — but her father has a more sophisticated suitor in mind: The Right Honorable Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B, First Lord of the Admiralty.

Will true love prevail? Peck says they audience will just have to attend to find out. “Though let’s be honest,” he says. “They can probably guess.”

“Pinafore” was first produced in 1878 at the Opera Comique inLondon, where it ran for 571 performances —the second-longest running operetta up to that time. Some of the show’s best-known songs include “I’m Called Little Buttercup” and “A British Tar.”

“In fact,” Peck says, “the start of American musical theatre owes a lot to this show. It became an international sensation — and when it crossed over to theUnited States, it helped set the stage for the form of the American musical.”

Peck has directed the show before, many years ago. “Actually it was the third play I ever directed,” he says. “So I was so young; I was going by instinct. Now I have a tool bag, tricks of the trade, 25 more years of experience, and of course a great cast.”

Peck brings a Pop Art sensibility to this classic musical theatre masterpiece by playing with the typical production design to create something novel but still rooted in history.

“Imagine what Andy Warhol or Robert Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns might have done with ‘Pinafore,’ and that’s where we’re headed,” Peck says. “The show takes place on a warship painted to look like the Union Jack in bright reds and aqua blues. It feels like a toy boat.”

MSMT’s second production of the season reaches new technicolor heights with the help of faculty members and Muhlenberg alumni. Peck and Barra are joined by faculty member and professional actor Troy Dwyer as the dialect designer for the show. Also joining the production are Muhlenberg alumni Lauren Curnow ’96 as Little Buttercup and Matthew Allar ’00 as the scenic designer.

Allar and costume designer Kevin Thacker look to bring a sense of flourish to the show — reflective of the flourish of the music and lyrics — by brightening the costumes and set.

“We are embracing the late 19th century Victoriana setting, but in a pop contemporary way,” Allar says. “I am working to update the Victorian aesthetic typically seen in ‘HMS Pinafore’ with heightened shape and color to reflect the heightened music.”

Similarly, Dwyer, is crafting dialects not commonly used for “Pinafore” — but which he says are more truthful to the setting of the show. The characters are of British descent, but from the coast, resulting in more of a Hampshire and Portsmith accent which Dwyer says sounds “more pirate-like” than the English Cockney accent usually used

“This show takes a bold, colorful, vivid approach to the world of ‘Pinafore,'” Dwyer says, “but with no sacrifice of human reality, thanks to Jim. There are complete, whole characters — performing absurd humor.”

The accents Dwyer is designing signify more than a truthful locale, they also signify status and class within the world of the play. The more “pirate-like” the accent gets, the lower the class of the character speaking.  All of this intense focus on dialect specificity works to solidify Peck’s creation of absurdity still rooted in reality. Although Peck draws from a pop contemporary style, he still hopes to get at some important themes of class and true love. The show is anchored (pun intended) by these realistic themes.

“The theme of war between classes in this opera is as relevant today as it was when the show was written,” says actress Lauren Curnow, who plays Little Buttercup. “What’s great with this piece is that Gilbert and Sullivan composed text and music to complement each character’s absurd, but very serious, take on where the class lines should be drawn.”

“HMS Pinafore” plays July 11-29, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., in the Dorothy H. Baker Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance.

For the first four performances, July 11-14, tickets are $32 regular admission; seniors are $28; students and children are $18. For shows beginning July 15, tickets are $38 regular admission; seniors, $35; students and children, $20.

Sundays are Family Matinee day; tickets for children ages 5-18 are just $10 when purchased with a full-price or senior ticket. (Limit two discounted tickets per full-price ticket.) Group discounts are available for groups of 15 or more.

Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre performance information and tickets are available at 484-664-3333 or www.muhlenberg.edu/SMT.