When it comes to delivering sheer guilty pleasure, Gilbert and Sullivan comedies trump jukebox musicals by several orders of magnitude. Granted, their plots aren't quite as far-fetched - do most Biblical stories strain credibility the way Mamma Mia! does? - but their delightful brainlessness do keep you alert and thankful for the peculiar joys of the theatre. (The timeless, original scores never hurt.)
So Albert Bergeret, the artistic director of The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players, has the right idea for providing some desperately needed escapism this winter: Revivals of two cherished entries from the Gilbert and Sullivan canon: H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado, which run through January 15. Neither production is likely to be considered a definitive rendering, but if your absurdity reserve is running low, or you're just pining for a few extra gallons of English nationalism, you won't be this satisfied anywhere else.
Pinafore, in particular, is a scrumptiously silly celebration of British class differences that seems at once hopelessly outdated and reassuringly familiar. With its pining sailors, deceiving captains, and a First Lord of the Admiralty being trailed by several dozen of "his sisters and his cousins and his aunts," it's the quintessential overpopulated Gilbert and Sullivan story, with the requisite outsized (but restrained, thank you) emotions and a plot so convoluted that only a personally scandalous last-minute revelation can set everything right. (Yes, this is Pinafore, not Pirates of Penzance.)
The Mikado, featuring its own story of forbidden love as overseen (and meddled in) by a royal executioner with a reluctant axe and a quota to fill, seems almost more civilized. And though it was a wonderful way for facile composer Sullivan to stretch himself just a bit - there are tinges, but only tinges, of true Japanese flavor - the inhabitants of the show's Titipu setting might as well be on a weekend holiday from Essex. (Deconstructing Gilbert's typically convoluted libretto for hints of anti-Asian sentiment is an exercise too pointless to engage in here.)
Bergeret, who conducts and directs both productions, isn't afraid to embrace the works' ridiculous natures, which doesn't always work in their favors. One appreciates his sly sense of humor and attempts to induce the contemporary audience into the action; his version of the famous "never will be missed" list song for Ko-Ko, The Mikado's Lord High Executioner, includes references to Paris Hilton and Tom DeLay. And if neither production generates the wall-to-wall merriment possible, Bergeret finds more than his fair share of laughs.
His penchant for adjusting other lines and lyrics, however, sometimes goes to unnecessary extremes; I could swear I heard references to cell phones in one of the busier Pinafore sections, for example. And his habit of extending minor bits of stage business in minor songs to multiple shaky minutes - there are several additional reprises each of Pinafore's "Never Mind the Why and Wherefore" and The Mikado's "Here's a How-De-Do" that add to the running time more than the hilarity - makes for a series of inelegant solutions to non-existent problems.
But his conducting, from the overtures forward, is first-rate, and the 25-piece orchestra handles the music with all the necessary grace, agility, and wit. As is perhaps to be expected, The Mikado receives the more elaborate physical production, with Bergeret's set for it (looking far more Japanese than anything in the show sounds) crowned by a gorgeous, misty-watercolor backdrop; conspicuously colorful costumes (by Gail J. Wofford), which will single-handedly keep New York's fan and kimono manufacturers in the black in 2006, complete the package. Pinafore looks stodgier and more ashamedly traditional, but its trappings are adequate.
So are most of the performers. The two troupes run the gamut from the exquisite (stout Dianna Dollman, a robust mezzo of uniquely rich vocal gifts, as the spurned lover Katisha in The Mikado) to the just-functional (Brian Kuchta as a nicely sung but stiffly unappealing Ralph Rackstraw in Pinafore), frequently leaning on the latter. The Mikado, though, receives more exciting casting, with a thrilling duo in the majestic Michael Scott Harris and the gorgeous-voiced Laurelyn Watson as troubled lovers Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum, and Stephen Quint as a charmingly understated Ko-Ko.
In Pinafore, only Keith Jurosko finds the right balance of silliness and doddering severity as First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Joseph Porter, though he piles on the latter a bit thick with his (unrecognizable) turn as The Mikado's title character. Most of the actors, Jurosko and Harris most notably excepted, could easily be criticized for their unoriginal - and occasionally undetectable - acting choices, which aren't aided by Bill Fabris's utilitarian choreography or Bergeret's somewhat staid staging.
But it's a tribute to the durability of the pieces themselves that, ultimately, that matters very little. Gilbert and Sullivan only require extraordinary effort to be, well, extraordinary; superb singing and an overdeveloped sense of whimsy are all that's required for them to be sold, and sold well. Bergeret and his companies, thankfully, have no shortage of either.
New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players 32nd Anniversary Season