When you hear members of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players talk about performing the famous playwriting pair's comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore, it almost sounds as if they're contradicting themselves.
They speak of putting this current touring production on in a traditional way, staying true to the original story and time period. At the same time, they talk about keeping things "fresh," "new" and "alive."
If you're going to walk this tricky theatrical tightrope and pull it off almost every night, it helps to have a good foundation. Gilbert & Sullivan's work certainly has that going for it.
"The Gilbert & Sullivan shows are so well written, which is why they still last so long," said David Auxier, who plays Captain Corcoran. H.M.S. Pinafore "was so tightly and efficiently written. It's kind of timeless."
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The enduring appeal of H.M.S. Pinafore, or The Lass Who Loved a Sailor, is even more impressive given that the piece debuted in London in 1878 and is performed in theaters around the world to this day. The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players brings its production to Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville on Friday.
The comic opera touches on themes of love and the struggles between social classes when Captain Corcoran intends his daughter Josephine to marry the well-to-do Sir Joseph Porter, even though she has romantic feelings for a lowly sailor named Ralph Rackstraw.
All the stage action takes place on the deck of the British naval ship H.M.S. Pinafore. The word "pinafore" refers to a garment traditionally worn by little girls, so you can tell right away that built into this play's music, singing and dancing is a healthy dose of comedy.
Much of that comedy is political satire. Gilbert & Sullivan's piece lampoons upper-crust British society. Even though this play skewers the "1 percent" of its day 136 years ago, Auxier said the class conflict resonates with audiences of almost any generation.
"Political satire, when well written, lasts forever simply because politics never really changes," he said.
The play's time-tested love story is just one more element that extends this musical's shelf life as popular theater.
"H.M.S. Pinafore is still so relatable to modern life," said Kate Bass, who plays Josephine. "At the same time, it's still Gilbert & Sullivan, so it's still very ridiculous."
The rich orchestrations and challenging vocal work of H.M.S. Pinafore might not change much from city to city, but the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players take some comic leeway with each stop. The play gets crowds laughing even though it's more than a century old, and Auxier said the decision of the actors to play these characters with honesty and sincerity instead of going over the top makes the jokes hit even harder.
Auxier, who also is the play's co-director and dance captain, said he tries to throw in some modern and topical political references for each city the troupe visits. Aside from that, there are certain moments of the play when things get a bit "ad-libby," and that comes from the cast's comfort level.
"It's hard for me sometimes to keep from laughing," Bass said. "They really like to improv a lot. It's fun and kind of keeps that fresh every night."
Auxier adds, "From an actual actor's standpoint, we play off each other. It really makes the scene feel alive."
For this repertory ensemble, whose mission is to keep Gilbert & Sullivan works thriving, having a show like H.M.S. Pinafore to bring to audiences across the country certainly pleases an older generation, but it also has little trouble picking up new fans.
"For anybody that enjoys a play that's full of good humor and lush, beautiful music with great lyrics and writing that stands out," Auxier said, "if you like a musical or an opera, you're going to be good."