Gilbert & Sullivan classic better than ever

By Philippa Kiraly

I’ve seen Gilbert & Sullivan’s “H. M. S. Pinafore” a dozen or more times, and each time I find myself enjoying it as much as ever, finding heretofore unnoticed sentiments as pertinent today as 132 years ago, and seeing different performers discovering new angles to their roles and bringing them to prominence.

Much of the latter is often due to a skilled stage director, and Christine Goff, in her ninth season undertaking this role for Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, has proven herself as fine as any in the job.

“Pinafore” began this weekend at the Bagley Wright Theater and runs for a couple more weeks including, as opener, an early Sullivan work, “Cox and Box,” with libretto by J. Madison Morton and F.C. Burnand.
I’d never seen the latter, the tale of a landlord renting the same room to two men with opposite work schedules, and what happens when one has a day off. With veteran performers Scott Bessho as a dapper Cox and Richard Hodsdon as a whiskery Box, and Craig Cantley as Bouncer, the military-minded landlord, it’s a clever, funny curtainraiser.

Nathan Rodda’s “Pinafore” set has not changed much from its last presentation in 2004, and several performers are familiar faces but in different roles. Thus, Dave Ross, the quintessential dry baritone who in the past has sung all the patter songs, here undertakes villain Dick Deadeye, in a quest, according to his program bio, “to play as many unreconstructed villains as possible.” He’s a great Deadeye, slouching malevolently across the stage with twisted shoulder and humped back as well as eyepatch. Physically small, you can’t ignore his presence on stage.

William J. Darkow, who has already sung Pinafore’s other baritone roles, Deadeye and Sir Joseph Porter. K.C. B., here is Captain Corcoran, the best Corcoran I’ve ever heard, both sung and acted. Darkow inhabits his character fully, from loving parent to competent captain to social climber to, surprise and with a complete change of accent and mannerisms, downfall to lowly seaman. He’s a delight every moment he’s on stage, despite laryngitis, which Saturday night didn’t seem to inhibit his plummy singing voice or sonorous speech at all. However, he lipsynched his way through the captain’s highest aria, which was sung offstage by Cantley.

No G & S company can succeed without the baritone who does the patter. Seattle G & S is rich in having two of them. Ross having moved on to try other roles, John Brookes has become a worthy successor with same qualifications for the job. His Sir Joseph is a mincing fop, a snob, a dancing caricature, and truly loathsome for a young girl to consider marrying.

This is a company where the performers, designers, backstage staff and everybody else except the orchestra, do it all for love, and get so hooked that they stay, continuing in some role or other for decades. In recent years, quite a few newcomers have joined in. Little do they realize they will likely still be here in 2050, doing something with the company.

Among them are tenor Oliver Donaldson, new this year and singing Ralph Rackstraw, the hero (if there is one), looking the part with his red-gold curls and a fine voice and good acting skills—a valuable addition to the company. Baritone Gene Ma, in his second year, is another find, singing Boatswain. He’s comfortable on stage, with good timing, and is clearly destined for many more roles in the future.

Another essential voice and character in every G & S company is the strong, rich alto.It’s a voice Seattle G & S has sometimes had difficulty finding, but Erin Wise fills the bill well. Her Buttercup is a well-rounded character, the complete antidote to Sir Joseph, and much more fun besides.

Jenny Shotwell sings the ingenue, the captain’s daughter Josephine. She’s quite good in the difficult role of a moping teen but comes into her own towards then end when she kicks over the traces and becomes an exuberant romp.

As always, Seattle G & S has an outstanding chorus. Many professional acting companies could learn from it. Every member is a full-fledged character the whole time he or she is on stage, and together they further the story and bring plenty to life to the performance.

The whole is held tightly together by conductor Bernard Kwiram.

Remaining performances: July 15-18, and 22-24 at the Bagley Wright Theatre, including four family nights, two Saturday matinees and one Sunday matinée. (Family Nights offer reduced ticket prices and feature a question and answer session with the actors and a back stage tour after the show). Tickets $35, $12 for those under 25, discounts on family nights. 206-341-9612, or


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