By Colin Douglas
Upon entering the new, first floor black box theatre at the Den, just off their beautiful, recently-opened bar-and-coffee house lobby, the audience might think they’ve accidentally wandered into a Montessori School, instead of a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic operetta, HMS Pinafore.
Michael Smallwood’s creative playhouse, which this is in every sense of the word, becomes framed by an assortment of colorful quilts and bedding hanging from clotheslines. The center of the room is dominated by a comfy pillow pit, filled with soft cushions and stuffed animals; the entrance to this pit is either from the ground level or by a slide, mounted on a wooden jungle gym. Around the room are strewn assorted bunk beds, benches and, for the less adventurous, risers with chairs. The braver, younger audience members can enjoy becoming part of this interactive, promenade-style production by either standing or sitting anywhere within the space. They simply have to be ready to move out of the actors‘ way when requested to do so.
The mad maestro behind the creation and direction of this production is Hypocrites founder, Sean Graney. His name is synonymous with the company’s 20-year reputation for creating groundbreaking, highly original productions of familiar plays that defy audience expectation. His version of yet another Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, completing the trilogy, is no exception. In fact, in their new home at the Den Theatre, the company will also be bringing back their highly popular “The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance to play in repertory through February, alongside HMS Pinafore. The same brilliant, multitalented 10-member ensemble unbelievably star in all three of these productions.
In Graney’s romping, hilarious production of The Lass Who Loved a Sailor, the tables are turned. Anyone not already familiar with this operetta, while there’s no doubt they’ll enjoy every moment, will miss one of Graney’s more inventive strokes. All the male roles have been recast as women, and vice versa. The lass loving the sailor goes from Ralph to Ralphina Rackstraw, and Josephine becomes Joseph, the son of Captain Corcoran, now called Captain Cat Coran, the lady Commander of the Pinafore. In fact in this production, her entire crew of sailors are female, including the operetta’s troublemaker, Able Seaman Dot Deadeye. Even the comic, Right Honorable Sir Joseph Porter becomes Admiral Dame Jo-Ann Porter. Lil‘ Buttercup is a statuesque manny, and all the cousins and aunts, led by Cousin Heebies, are equally manly men. The result is very funny for both G&S novices and aficionados, alike.
Keeping with the concept that this production is simply a 70-minute bedtime story told at a children’s slumber party (with a one-minute interval, during which patrons can replenish their drinks at an onstage Tiki Bar), Alison Siple has costumed all of her actors in prismatic pjs and bright-hued bathrobes. In addition, every one of these versatile actors accompanies himself or his cast mates on a variety of portable instruments: guitars, ukeleles, a banjo, a variety of accordions and concertinas, a flute, a clarinet, various rhythm instruments and even a tiny toy piano. The result is a three-ring circus of entertainment, with the audience often playing a part.
As previously mentioned, this cast is super extraordinary and multitalented. Handsome, gifted Doug Pawlik plays Joseph as the pampered, entitled offspring of the ship’s Captain Cat Coran, beautifully played by lovely Emily Casey (so wonderful in Chicago Children’s Theatre’s recent production of Frederick). Pawlik warmly snuggles into Sullivan’s lilting melodies, rising effortlessly when occasion demands into Joseph’s high range, while embracing all of Gilbert’s descriptive words and phrases. Joseph is made all the more enduring in his shortie pajamas and fuzzy puppy slippers. Joseph’s love interest, new midshipwoman Ralphina Rackstraw, is played with spunk and lovelorn devotion by the lovely, melodious Dana Omar. The actress handles every action and nuance of her character with drive, spit and polish. She and Pawlik form a wonderful comic couple.
More comedy and music are provided by Christine Stulik, as Admiral Dame Jo-Ann, in her Roseanne Roseannadanna wig and coat of many colors. The Dame’s tongue-twisting patter song, “When I Was a Lass,” is a highlight of the show, as well as being one of the more familiar songs in the score. Another well-known ditty, “I’m Called Little Buttercup,” is sung with humor and strength by the talented Robert McLean. He also offers comedic resolution to the operetta’s conflict, a result of the strict British class system, with his “A Many Years Ago.” Kate Caron-Groner is a scene-stealing Dot Dead-Eye, Matt Kahler leads the choral ensemble as Cousin Heebies and Shawn Pfautsch, Erik Schroeder and Lauren Vogel ably lend their considerable musical and comedic talents to the chorus. It’s astounding to comprehend that this entire production is comprised of only ten performers!
This sensational, creative company, one of the jewels in Chicago’s shimmering crown of theatres, continues to impress, show after show. With their completion of Gilbert and Sullivan’s trilogy of popular operettas the group has achieved the impossible, thinking outside of the box. Thanks to Graney’s inspired and imaginative adaptation and direction, this production adds spirit and pizzazz to the holiday season.
Don’t be surprised to find yourself involved in a pillow fight or discover a teddy bear tossed into your lap. It’s all good fun. This is a must-see production for everyone, young and old alike. While the script is older than a holiday fruitcake, in the Hypocrite’s capable hands, it’s become as fresh and sparkling as new-fallen snow.
Gilbert & Sullivan operettas are presented in repertory through Feb. 7 by The Hypocrites at the Den Theatre, 1329-1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. Tickets are available online at www.the-hypocrites.com. Additional reviews by Colin Douglas, along with information about this and other area productions are found at www.theatreinchicago.com.