|Dennis Britten (Sir Joseph), Lindsey Lefler (Josephine), and Ron Swingen (Captain Corcoran)|
By Tina Arth
Judging from the size and responsiveness of the opening night audience, it appears that the gentle folk of Southwest Portland are eager to welcome light opera into their community. 138 years after the show’s London debut, the Light Opera of Portland (LOoP) is having way too much fun with Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore at the Multnomah Arts Center. Working with a very diverse group of performers, artistic director Dennis Britten and musical director Linda Smith have crafted a terribly funny show with a genuinely impressive vocal ensemble and a few fine solo vocalists.
For those unfamiliar with the genre, a quick and dirty definition of “light opera” might be “a short, amusing opera with a happy ending and in which some of the text is spoken” (thanks, thefreedictionary.com). For those unfamiliar with Pinafore, it is (like most of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan) not only a fine example of the art form, but offers thoroughly engaging relevance as a work of social criticism parodying the least attractive elements of traditional British society. So soon after Orlando, who would not warm to a show revolving around the theme that we love who we love, and social conventions and class distinctions are irrelevant in matters of the heart?
In addition to his contributions as artistic director, Dennis Britten fills a key role, playing The Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., (First Lord of the Admiralty) – the title alone tells us all we need to know about the character’s pretentiousness and utter self-absorption. Britten swaggers and condescends with the supercilious, over-the-top bluster expected of a 19th century upper-class Englishman, and his affect sets the tone for the entire production. Phyllis Fort (“Little Buttercup”) is his complete opposite – an aging trollop from the wrong side of the pier with a heart of gold encased in a slightly tarnished, but still lusty, shell. These two theatrical veterans anchor the show with their comic timing and commanding presence, and their voices are well suited to the droll demands of their roles.
The shining star of this production is Lindsay Lefler, playing the Captain’s daughter Josephine. Her beautiful, fully trained voice is ideal for the part, and seems to flutter out of her with no visible effort at all. She has the wide eyes and cutely mobile face necessary for a comic ingénue, and understands that in Gilbert and Sullivan, even the loftiest aria must be delivered with a light touch - nothing softens the impact of a ringing soprano like a touch of self-parody.
Among the rest of the cast, two men particularly shine. Jacob Mott (“Dick Deadeye”) is satisfyingly ominous, and imbues his performance with over-the-top melodrama that keeps the audience laughing. Tom Hamann (“Bill Bobstay”) projects the manly virtue so lovingly parodied in “A British Tar” – and his vocal turn in this number is equally memorable.
Vocal Director Alice Smith has really polished the men’s and women’s choruses, turning a lot of serviceable voices and a few really excellent ones into a powerful ensemble with frequent flashes of surprising beauty. With the occasional help of flutist Aurea Taylor, Smith also provides the entire “orchestra” with her gifted work at the piano.
Sue Woodbury’s costumes are elaborate and often authentic – lovely period gowns and hats for the sisters, cousins, and aunts, an elaborate uniform for the Lord Admiral, and simple stripes togging the lowly seamen. Joe Rosenthal’s detailed set establishes the shipboard locale and provides ample levels for all of the show’s activity.
I hope that LOoP will continue to shine the light of light opera on the stages of Southwest Portland with productions of this quality. It’s fun, lively, thoroughly entertaining, and done much too rarely. Go, see it, and tell your friends!
Light Opera of Portland’s HMS Pinafore plays at the Multnomah Arts Center, 7688 SW Capitol Highway, Portland through Sunday, June 26th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:00 pm and Sunday at 3 pm.