Ship Shape

Looks Like Smooth Sailing For The UA Opera's Summer Crowd Pleaser, 'H.M.S. Pinafore.'

A FAMILY SHOW: That's what Charles Roe wanted his University of Arizona Opera Theater to offer as its summer production, June 28 through July 2. But his choice, Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, isn't quite the innocent diversion he thought, to hear his cast members tell it.

"It's a very sexual show," claims Blake Pullen, who plays Capt. Corcoran, the commander of the wackiest ship in the Queen's Na-vee. The whole thing revolves around a love affair between the captain's young daughter, Josephine, and lowly seaman Ralph Rackstraw--and how that affair is endangered by Josephine's unwilling betrothal to Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty. Meanwhile, the captain becomes the fixation of one Little Buttercup, a none-too-innocent woman who provisions the ships anchored at Portsmouth.

"There are even homosexual undertones," Kelby Thwaits says wickedly. He plays the mutilated old salt Dick Deadeye, the show's most outrageous comic figure.

"But it's all very subtle," protests Jeannie Scheitz, one of two singers alternating in the role of sweet young Josephine. "It's more like a Romeo and Juliet story, with lovers who are forced apart by their families."

Indeed, no matter what salacious subtexts may be running through the minds of the UA actor-singers, this H.M.S. Pinafore is sure to be a G-rated production. Director Roe maintains that Savoyards--Gilbert and Sullivan fanatics--will not be disappointed. "It'll be pretty much in the traditional style," he promises.

Roe may inject a few original ideas into the proceedings, but he is mainly inspired by H.M.S. Pinafore's orthodox 122-year-old performance traditions, including some bits he picked up in productions he's appeared in himself. Roe sang the role of Capt. Corcoran at New York City Opera and with other companies.

Asked if he weren't intimidated being directed by someone who had sung his role at City Opera, Pullen grins. "Every time I try something that doesn't fit what he did in New York, he feels a need to change it."

"People are accustomed to seeing Gilbert and Sullivan done in a certain way," explains Scheitz. "So if we try to do something untraditional, Roe will correct us and say, 'That's not the way it's done!' "

"Since I'm Dick Deadeye, I get to do just about anything I want," counters Thwaits, whose relentless physical shtick and gnarled posture had Roe and choreographer Jory Hancock talking about sending him to a chiropractor for preventive maintenance. "He's going to steal the show," Roe says happily, and the cast has begun referring to the production as the Dick Deadeye Follies.

The other cast members may joke about Roe's strictness, but they seem enthusiastic about throwing themselves into the world of 1870s English operetta. Says Nicole Freeman, who alternates the part of Josephine with Scheitz, "I have to be careful about everything I do. I may want to make a certain gesture, but then I realize that somebody in this period--and in this corset--wouldn't make that gesture."

The singers deny that the words and music are outdated. According to Pullen, H.M.S. Pinafore is surprisingly durable. "This is something that can be totally sappy and overdone, but it still comes out okay," he says. "Gilbert and Sullivan are making fun of opera. At first this sounds like legitimate opera, but then you realize it's supposed to be totally absurd."

The role of Josephine is especially demanding; to spoof opera arias, the soprano must have full-fledged operatic pipes. Roe is confident that Freeman and Scheitz can handle it, despite the fact that they only recently graduated. There's a huge range of experience levels in this production; a couple of the chorus members are fresh out of high school, whereas John Dweiss, who plays Sir John Porter, is a gray-goateed doctoral candidate who taught chorus in public schools starting in the 1970s. He has also taken a few major roles and a great many supporting roles in various regional opera companies. "You could say I was in the major minor leagues," he notes.

Despite his seasoning, Dweiss still finds Gilbert and Sullivan's rapid-fire patter songs to be treacherous. Last summer, he played the bass-baritone patter character in the UA production of The Gondoliers, and nearly came to grief. Because the Crowder Hall stage is so shallow, Roe opens up the action by occasionally sending singers into the audience. Dweiss was delivering a patter song in the middle of the auditorium, "And of course that's when I forgot some words," he admits. "When you forget the words in an Italian opera you can fake a few Italian-sounding syllables, but in Gilbert and Sullivan you wind up just babbling. So this year, there's not a day that goes by when I don't run through my patter song."

The chorus members face their own challenge: singing well while managing intricate hand gestures and negotiating Hancock's choreography. "Dancers hardly ever have to dance and sing at the same time," says Hancock, who heads the UA dance division. "So I can appreciate what these guys are going through. But they're really into it."

UA Opera Theater presents Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, on stage at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, June 28 through July 1, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, July 2. All performances are in Crowder Hall, UA School of Music, south of the pedestrian underpass at Speedway east of Park Avenue. Tickets cost $12, $10 for seniors and UA employees, and $8 for students. Call 621-1162 for reservations and information.