HMS Pinafore
Vanessa Oude-Reimerink (Josephine) in Edmonton Opera's HMS Pinafore. Photo: Nanc Price

There’s a faction of Edmonton Opera supporters who would love to see an operetta every time they come to the Jubilee Auditorium—if not something by Gilbert and Sullivan, at least a production of The Merry Widow or Die Fledermaus. And those folks got their wish on Feb. 3 with the first of three performances of G & S’s HMS Pinafore, jazzed up in places presumably to show that convention needn’t preclude an injection of novelty.

HMS Pinafore gets jazzified

Edmonton Opera enlisted New York arranger Ed Windels, and added a few local jazz musicians to a reduced Edmonton Symphony Orchestra to colour the well-known, often-performed late 19th-century musical satire with shades of Dixieland and Roaring 20s effects. The result was decidedly uneven, and often incongruous. The hybrid effort did little to freshen the well-loved chestnut. As the great parablist observed, “No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, the old is better.”

Soprano Vanessa Oude-Reimerink (Josephine) is a legit singer, as they say in Broadway circles, an operatically trained artist who sounds like an opera singer. She is very good as an opera singer, but given a jazz line thrown into the middle of a G & S love ballad, she could not make the shift to a belt that would have made sense of the unidiomatic interruption. This left the jazz instrumentation sounding infelicitous and just confused the theatrical moment.

And occasionally, a tune that was sung in straight G & S style would gratuitously feature a short alto sax interjection, à propos of the production’s concept, but bearing no relation to the mood of the actual musical scene.

HMS Pinafore
Scene from Edmonton Opera’s HMS Pinafore. Photo: Nanc Price

Local favourite Bridget Ryan brings musical theatre cred

The only performer with Broadway cred was Bridget Ryan, a multifaceted local media personality, and she delivered a convincing Little Buttercup, rough-edged and musically plausible in the jazzified context of the show. Ryan’s Buttercup sang with an easy belt and confident musical theatre panache, commanding the stage entertainingly whenever she appeared. Her ragged costuming enhanced the effect of her lower-class position in the proceedings.

Glenn Nelson (Sir Joseph), on the other hand, sang the way George Burns used to ‘sing’, trying too hard to squeeze every bit of geezer eccentricity out of the role. As well, more tasteless comedy was thankfully not made of the aged suitor’s questionable interest in a woman half his age.

Dion Mazerolle’s Dick Dead Eye veered in the same direction as Nelson’s characterization, but Mazerolle contained the impulse toward self-conscious shtick, and made a solid comic contribution.

One of the few performers who seemed most adept at generating musical theatre stage presence was local actor/singer Ryan Parker (Bill Bobstay), who, whenever he had a short moment in the spotlight, came to the fore with a cheerful exuberance that didn’t stop the show, but did remind us that Pinafore is old-fashioned musical theatre.

Vanessa-Oude-Reimerink (Josephine) and Adrian Kramer (Ralph Rackstraw) in Edmonton Opera’s HMS Pinafore

Choreographed numbers lack pizzazz

Another short-coming of this production—especially since under normal musical theatre conventions the jazzy elements would have ignited a lively, intricately choreographed song and dance number—was the pedestrian energy of most of the chorus, called upon to swing, not ballroom dance, as they might in a continental operetta. (One female chorus member, though, really caught the appropriate vibe.)

Geoffrey Sirett, as Captain Corcoran, was splendidly affected, both in the copious spoken portions of the operetta and in his singing role. Sirett is comfortable in his skin as a performer, and he displayed both charming, dialed-back operatic technique and impressive physical comedic skill. (I’m sure the back-bend impressed everyone.) The other male lead, Adrian Kramer (Ralph Rackstraw, Josephine’s love interest, has a bright tenor sound, and was a good casting choice.

HMS Pinafore
A scene from Edmonton Opera’s HMS Pinafore. Photo: Nanc Price

Fantastic Roaring 20s costuming for HMS Pinafore

Some of the production’s best energy came from Deanna Finnman’s costuming. The women of the chorus, although often static participants in their scenes, looked fabulous in 20s flapper dresses, and Josephine’s tiered pink dress in the second act was really classy and looked great on Oude-Reimerink. (I predict awards coming to Finnman for her imaginative work). Camellia Koo’s set depicted a two-deck Cunard ocean liner. The orchestra, led by Peter Dala, sat upstage underneath the upper deck, and most of the action happened on the main stage in front. (One Edmonton reviewer pointed out that although the update put the setting on a civilian ship, the lyrics (Sir Joseph is the ruler of the Queen’s Navy after all) and some of the sailors’ gestures, maintained the original British Navy references.

Director Robert Herriot asked a lot in this hybrid G & S, staging a reasonable mix of medium-tempo farce, and stand-and-deliver singing scenes. Overall, the mixing of genres was a brave conceit that offered an old standard an update, especially musically, but it probably didn’t need the modifications to satisfy the segment of the Edmonton audience that loves tried and true Gilbert and Sullivan.

Whether this novel take on G & S will whet the appetite for more of the same in the impressively youthful audience that attended the opening remains to be seen. My guess is that the next generation of operagoers will be looking for something a little riskier, but a night of G & S, however it’s done, is never hard to take.