Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

H.M.S. Pinafore
Ross Valley Players
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's review of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Norman A. Hall and Sibel Demirmen
Photo by Robin Jackson
Because Sullivan's melodies are so charming, and Gilbert's stories so outrageous, it's easy to forget just how sharp the famous pair's satire can be. Performances of Gilbert & Sullivan today tend—just as they did in Victorian England—to appeal first and foremost as entertainment. The political mockery, the ribbing of rigid class systems, those were there to delight rather than provoke. But like the Pythons a century later, Gilbert & Sullivan's satirical sword often cut so sharp that the wound went unnoticed until the blood began to pool.

Ross Valley Players' wonderful production of H.M.S. Pinafore is no exception: the emphasis is on laughter and lovely music, but this most pleasant façade is occasionally pierced by Gilbert's pointed political barbs, as in "When I was a Lad," when Sir Joseph Porter (Norman A. Hall) sings of his unexpected rise from office boy to admiral—with never once setting foot on a ship: "I grew so rich that I was sent by a pocket borough into Parliament. I always voted at my party's call, and I never thought of thinking for myself at all. I thought so little, they rewarded me by making me the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!" Audience members (especially in bluer-than-blue Marin County, where the President-elect got less than 16% of votes) can be forgiven for feeling this has some contemporary resonance.

But enough of this heaviness, for this Pinafore packs enough pleasure into its two hours to perfectly leaven the sharp-toothed satire and leave its audience smiling and perhaps a little less burdened with care.

Begin with the signature silliness of the story: a low-born sailor and the captain's daughter are in love with each other but dare not express their feelings because they are of different classes. That, and the fact that the captain has a mind to wed his daughter to the aforementioned wealthy and powerful Sir Joseph provide sufficient obstacles to keep the course of true love from running smooth until well into the second act.

As Sir Joseph, Norman A. Hall once again puts his significant comic talents and mischievous smile to great use. As in his show-stealing turn in last season's The Pirates of Penzance, the Barn Theater is never brighter than when Hall is on its stage. With a knowing twinkle and infectious joy, he makes his Sir Joseph the highlight of the production.

But, wait, he has competition for show-stealer, as Sibel Demirmen's turn as Josephine, the ingénue whose hand is sought by both Sir Joseph and lowly Ralph Rackstraw, is wondrous in its own distinctive way. In addition to possessing a charming comedic and romantic presence, she sings with a confident, lovely soprano, among the best ever on a North Bay stage. Her tone is so clear and her musicality so evident that she seizes the audience's attention and holds it as long as she likes.

As her suitor Ralph Rackstraw, Cordell Wesselink is in possession of a strong tenor and an easy manner on stage. His voice is big and bright, but he occasionally needs to remember to let it run and not keep such a tight rein. Bobby Singer's Captain Corcoran has a deep baritone that he puts to good use during his songs, but needs significant assistance with his dialogue, as his acting is wooden and contrived.

The rest of director James Dunn's cast form a strong chorus who can also deliver the comic goods, despite the fact that Jim Fye works Dick Deadeye's weirdness a little too vigorously. The clawing hands and sinister sneering never get beyond a single dimension. Though at one level, most Gilbert & Sullivan characters can be said to have a cartoonish nature, Fye fails to reveal the actual human behind his character's villainous exterior.

Ultimately, though, it's easy to look past these few faults and simply revel in Gilbert's delightful music (lovingly performed by a single pianist, musical director Jef Labes) and Sullivan's silly love story. So let's "give three cheers, and one cheer more," for this marvelous production of H.M.S. Pinafore.

H.M.S. Pinafore plays Thursdays-Sundays through December 18, 2016, at Ross Valley Players' Barn Theatre, located in the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices are $27 general admission, and $15 for children under 18 and students with valid high school or college ID. Thursday night tickets are $22 for adults and $12 for children and students. Tickets can be ordered by calling 415-456-9555, ext. 1 or visiting