By George Basler
H.M.S. Pinafore was a smash hit when it opened back in 1878, running for 571 performances and becoming an international sensation. And the comic operetta continues to please audiences close to 150 years later because of a catchy score by Arthur Sullivan and satirically humorous libretto by W.S. Gilbert.
Given its popularity, the show was an obvious choice for the Summer Savoyards to perform as the company returns to live productions July 8-10 after a two-year COVID-19 hiatus, said Richard Vollmer, the show’s stage director.
“We want something people relate to, understand and know,” Vollmer said. “It’s a great production to say ‘welcome back’ to the community; we’re still here.”
The three performances at Binghamton University’s Anderson Center will feature a 23-person cast and full orchestra, conducted by Sherri Strichman, the production’s music director. It marks the 62nd season that the community theater troupe has presented Gilbert & Sullivan operettas as a tonic for summer audiences.
Returning to live performing “feels wonderful,” Vollmer said, emphasizing: “There is so much excitement and energy in the room from everyone — performers, designers and orchestra members.”
Pinafore is considered one of G&S’ “big three,” along with The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance. The action takes place aboard the Royal Navy ship H.M.S. Pinafore and centers on the love of the captain’s daughter, Josephine, for a lower-class sailor, Ralph Rackstraw. Problems ensue because Josephine’s father wants her to marry Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Over the course of the two acts, Gilbert’s libretto pokes gentle fun at patriotism, unqualified public officials and the British class system. As is the case with many G&S operettas, a last-minute plot twist ensures that everything turns out right.
Vollmer, a stage manager by trade, has directed many regional productions. But, while he has acted with the Savoyards in the past, this is the first time directing one of the troupe’s shows. He said his directing style is to have cast members bounce ideas off each other, and that’s what’s happening with Pinafore. The production, he said, is a traditional one, with the setting and costumes reflecting Victorian England, but the cast is also looking to bring a fresh perspective to some of the characters and some of jokes.
“I’m a comedy guy,” Vollmer emphasized. So, audience members will see moments of slapstick humor. But Pinafore’s characters are “real people in absurd situations,” not cartoons, and cast members “have to take on real emotions to what’s happening,” he said.
The production features performers who have appeared in numerous other Savoyard productions, including William C. Snyder as Sir Joseph Porter, Gregory Keeler as the Pinafore’s captain, and Jessica Pullis as Little Buttercup, a dockside vendor.
“Gilbert & Sullivan is so much fun to sing. It’s lighthearted and challenging at the same time,” said Pullis, who has performed on and off with the Savoyards since she was 14 years old. This year’s production is Pullis’ fourth Pinafore but her first time playing Buttercup.
“The biggest challenge is finding a different way to play the role and make her your own, not to be influenced by what you’ve seen done in the past,” she said.
While this year’s production is filled with seasoned performers, it also casts younger people in featured parts, Vollmer said. Having this multi-generational cast is “great” he said, adding that it reflects the Savoyard mission to not only have fun but also to teach skills to young performers that they can carry over to other companies.
Pullis is just happy to be performing G&S again after the two-year, COVID-necessitated absence from live performance. “I have always had a special place in my heart for G&S and the Summer Savoyards, and it is nice to see the tradition carry on,” she said.
IF YOU GO: Performances will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, July 8 and 9, and 3 p.m. Sunday, July 10, in Binghamton University’s Anderson Center Chamber Hall. Tickets are $25; seniors (65 and over) and children (12 and under) $20.
Call the box office at 607-777-ARTS (777-2787), or visit www.summersavoyards.org/2022-hms-pinafore or anderson-center.secure.force.com/ticket#/.