On October 14, the Guthrie's current production of Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore will have the honor of appearing on PBS as the first show in a new, nine-part series of nationally televised art events airing this fall under the banner of the PBS Arts Fall Festival.
The series highlights arts events in cities around the country, and each show will be accompanied by a short overview of the city from which the program originates. Seattle will be represented by a documentary about the band Pearl Jam, for instance, and Cleveland—because it is the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—will produce a program called Women Who Rock .
For millions of people across the nation, H.M.S. Pinafore is likely be the first and only Guthrie production they will ever see, and it will, for better or worse, represent the Twin Cities' arts scene (as well as our great maritime tradition, ahem) to the rest of America. The question then becomes not how brilliant a stage production Pinafore is (and parts of it are indeed brilliant), but how good the show will look and sound on television?
It's impossible to know the answer to that question, but I suspect that several elements of this production were devised with the small screen in mind. For example, many productions of Pinafore—especially those done in the round, as it is on the Guthrie's thrust stage—feature a three-dimensional ship that rotates. The Guthrie opted instead for a stationary ship festooned with flags and obligatory life preservers, and relies for visual dazzle on spectacularly colorful costumes, energetic choreography, and liberal use of the thrust stage's hydraulic lift.
Of these three elements, the dance choreography by David Bolger is the most conspicuously awesome. The Guthrie imported a significant amount of dance and voice talent for this production, and the result is a continuous parade of stunning song-and-dance sequences that would look right at home on Broadway. Often, the magic is as simple and elegant as using a bunch of brooms to create a giant winch onstage. These are the sorts of flourishes that raise an average production to a memorable one, and there are scores of such moments in the Guthrie's version.
The singing and musical arrangements are also first-rate, as you would expect them to be given the Guthrie's resources and reputation. One import, Heather Lindell (last seen on Broadway in La Cage aux Folles) is fetching as Josephine, the captain's daughter, and she has ample opportunity to show off her impressive pipes. And, as the captain of the ship, Guthrie regular Robert Berdahl delivers his most comically entertaining performance in quite some time.
Director Joe Dowling steers the good ship Pinafore with his usual steady hand. For the most part, however, this is a straight-ahead, no-gimmicks production that relies on tried-and-true devices of musical theater to make it hum. The only other element that makes it distinctive is the addition of a few humorous asides and sight gags by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher. These are designed to give American audiences something genuine to laugh at, since so much of the humor in Pinafore depends on a working knowledge of how the British caste system works (or doesn't), how much stock the Brits put in blood lineage (too much), and how so much British art and literature of the 18th and 19th centuries relied on convenient switcheroos late in the story that made everything work out the way it theoretically should, if royal blood did indeed run through a character's veins. Hatcher's additions work quite well (which is to say they are funny), and they blend in fairly seamlessly because G&S allows for a certain amount of latitude in the area of stage antics and silliness.
As for how well the Guthrie's H.M.S. Pinafore will represent the Twin Cities "arts scene" to the rest of the nation, that's another matter entirely. We will not be embarrassed by it, because the Guthrie's production is as solid and sturdy as a John Deere tractor. But neither will it give us bragging rights in the areas of sophistication, ingenuity, diversity, intelligence, artistic cross-pollination, and creativity—all of which are vital cogs in the local arts machine.
No single production can communicate all of that, of course, but when looking for a show to represent the Twin Cities to the rest of the country, we could have hoped for something with a little more substance and a little less populist pablum. In the PBS lineup, the Twin Cities is going to be out-cooled by Cleveland and Seattle, of all places! We'll hold our own, I'm sure. I just hope we get another chance to show the country the true character of the Twin Cities arts scene. Pinafore is a fun show, but it's also a safe, low-risk show, because people already love it. Next time, there ought to at least be an iceberg or two to avoid. This one is smooth sailing all the way.
H.M.S. Pinafore runs through Aug. 28 at The Guthrie Theater.