Chicago Theater Review: H.M.S. PINAFORE (Hypocrites)

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by Barnaby Hughes on December 3, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

THE HYPOCRITES PLAYFULLY ROCK THIS BOAT

A nautical joyride of musical mayhem, belly laughs, and unadulterated fun, this world premiere adaptation of H.M.S. Pinafore completes The Hypocrites’ Gilbert & Sullivan trilogy. (If you missed the company’s previous productions of Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, you can catch remounts running concurrently with H.M.S. Pinafore.) Founding artistic director Sean Graney playfully adapts and directs this 1878 comic opera as an energetic pajama party replete with gender-switched roles. Sporting a run-time of 70 minutes, including a one-minute intermission, H.M.S. Pinafore is no slow boat to China. It’s over before you even think about looking at your watch.

Matt Kahler and Christine Stulik in The Hypocrites’ world premiere adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. PINAFORE, adapted and directed by Sean Graney.  Photo by Evan Hanover.

W.S. Gilbert wrote the libretto and Arthur Sullivan the music for the original version of this sea-faring love story. In Graney’s adaptation, handsome Joseph (Doug Pawlik), son of Captain Cat Coran (Emily Casey), must choose between two suitors, the common “sailress” Ralphina Rackstraw (Dana Omar) and Admiral Dame Jo-Ann (Christine Stulik). Initially accepting the more advantageous match, Joseph changes his mind under the influence of the admiral’s egalitarian ideals and marries Ralphina. Thus, H.M.S. Pinafore finds much of its “humour” by gently poking fun at the British social class system.

Kate Carson-Groner, Shawn Pfautsch, Matt Kahler, Lauren Vogel, Erik Schroeder and Robert McLean in The Hypocrites’ world premiere adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. PINAFORE, adapted and directed by Sean Graney.  Photo by Evan Hanover.

In addition to singing, every actor in this spirited show plays at least one musical instrument in Matt Kahler’s and Andra Velis Simon’s folksy musical arrangements. Every song is perfectly adapted to the abilities and personalities of the performers, who strum banjos, guitars, and mandolins, squeeze accordions, and blow on flutes and clarinets. The music even shapes the humor, as when Ralphina is accused of singing flat or Lil’ Buttercup (Robert McLean)’s morbid thoughts are echoed in Sailress Tiff’ni (Lauren Vogel)’s frantic violin playing.

Doug Pawlik in The Hypocrites’ world premiere adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. PINAFORE, adapted and directed by Sean Graney.  Photo by Evan Hanover.

Any distinctions between audience and cast or seating and stage become incredibly blurry in this production. While the Hypocrites describe H.M.S. Pinafore as being performed “promenade style,” it would be more apt to call it “playground style.” Michael Swallwood’s sprawling set comprises bunk beds, benches, a slide that ends in a “pillow pit” and a real bar where you can buy drinks. Audience members are invited to sit, stand, or perch anywhere, but warned that they might be prompted to move at any time to make way for the cast. In practice, this offers plenty of opportunities for direct audience-actor interaction as well as improvisation, especially if you sit in the pillow pit.

Dana Omar, Kate Carson-Groner, Christine Stulik, Emily Casey and Lauren Vogel in The Hypocrites’ world premiere adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. PINAFORE, adapted and directed by Sean Graney.  Photo by Evan Hanover.

Alison Siple’s childish costumes blend classic sailor garb with colorful pajamas in a variety of textures and patterns. Heather Gilbert’s lighting design adds to the festive atmosphere copious strands of Christmas lights criss-crossing the ceiling. Erin Kilmurray’s creative choreography sees the cast dancing across the benches, climbing the bunk beds and sliding down with instruments in hand. Stage manager Miranda Anderson keeps everything moving like clockwork. The result of all this talent is an uproariously enjoyable and highly entertaining production. It’s not your grandparents’ H.M.S. Pinafore!

(top) Erik Schroeder with (front, left to right) Robert McLean, Emily Casey, Christine Stulik, Shawn Pfautsch and Lauren Vogel in The Hypocrites’ world premiere adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. PINAFORE, adapted and directed by Sean Graney.  Photo by Evan Hanover.

(back, left to right) Doug Pawlik and Dana Omar with (front, left to right) Robert McLean, Shawn Pfautsch, Lauren Vogel, Matt Kahler and Christine Stulik in The Hypocrites’ world premiere adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. PINAFORE, adapted and directed by Sean Graney.  Photo by Evan Hanover.photos by Evan Hanover

H.M.S. Pinafore
The Hypocrites
The Den Theatre
1329-1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8;
Sun at 3 & 8; Mon at 8
ends on February 7, 2015
tickets: www.the-hypocrites.com

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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