Great entertainment often comes from taking a well-known and successful story and transplanting it to another place and time. For example, take Wagon Train, the story of a wagon train making its way from Missouri to California, along the way meeting all sorts of strange and interesting people. Transplant it to outer space, and voilà, you have the classic “Star Trek“. Now, suppose you took the classic Gilbert & Sullivan operetta “H.M.S. Pinafore” and transplanted it to outer space (specifically, the aforementioned world of Star Trek)… voilà, you have “U.S.S. Pinafore”, the musical we saw last night at Crown City Theatre.
“U.S.S. Pinafore” is actually a pretty straight retelling of the “H.M.S. Pinafore” story, with character name and costume changes, and of course adaptation of they lyrics to parody the TV show we all love. For those unfamiliar with the story, Pinafore tells the story of the U.S.S. Pinafore and it’s captain, Captain Corcoran (Jesse Merlin, mistermerlin). While orbiting the planet Penzance 12 in deep space, a local star trader, Little Buttercup (Kathi Chaplar), boards. She hints that she may be hiding a dark secret. Ralph Rackstraw (Aidan Parkæ), a Transporter Assistant Repairman (TAR) enters and declares his love for the Captain’s daughter, Josephine (Ashley Cuellar). The other red shirts on the crew (Bib Bobstay, first officer (Tim Polzinæ); T’Preea, Vulcan Communications Officer (Paton Ashbrookæ); Datum, Cyborg Navigator (Michael Levin); Dave Becket, Security Officer (Dave Bergesæ); and Dick Deadeye, a lizard-like alien (James Jaegeræ)) offer their sympathies, for a woman of her class would never end up with a TAR. Captain Cocoran greets his crew, complimenting them on their skill and promising to never (“well, hardly ever”) use bad language. After the crew leaves, the Captain confesses that his daugher is reluctant to consider a marriage proposal from Sir Joseph Porter (Ron Schneideræ), head of the U.F.P. Buttercup says that she knows how it feels to love in vain. Josephine enters and reveals to her father that she loves a humble sailor in his crew, but she assures him that she is a dutiful daughter and will never reveal her love to this sailor. Sir Joseph comes on board, accompanied by the Trust Fund Girls, Phoebe (Misha Bouvionæ), Hebe (Victoria Gonzalez), and Jebe (Paton Ashbrookæ) (his sister, cousin and aunt, respectively). Porter recounts how he rose from humble beginnings to be head of the U.F.P. in a well-known patter song. He also declares that all crew in Star Fleet are equal, except to him. This emboldens Ralph to declare his love to Josephine, but annoys Dick Deadhead, the realist. We also learn that Dick, the lizard creature, once had a torrid affair with Phoebe. Josephine rejects Ralphs love, but when Ralph is about to commit suicide by phaser, she enters and admits she loves him after all. Later, while the Captain expresses his concern to Little Buttercup, he indicates that if it were not for the difference in their social standing, he would have returned her affection. She prophesies that things are not all as they seem and that “a change” is in store for him. Sir Joseph enters and complains that Josephine has not yet agreed to marry him, and the Captain speculates that she is probably dazzled by his “exalted rank” and that if Sir Joseph can persuade her that “love levels all ranks”, she will accept his proposal. When Sir Joseph makes this argument, a delighted Josephine says that she “will hesitate no longer”, and reaveals her plan to marry Ralph. All beam down to the planet, where the Captain and Sir Joseph confront the lovers. The pair declare their love, justifying their actions because “He is an Earthman!” The furious Captain blurts out the D-word, and is confined to quarters. Ralph indicates the reason, and Sir Joseph has the sailor “loaded with chains” and taken to the brig. Little Buttercup now comes forward to reveal her long-held secret: when children, she mixed up the captain and Ralph: The wellborn babe was Ralph; your Captain was the other. Ralph and the Captain enter, having switched tunics, and a series of couples are now formed.
As I said, a straightforward translation of Pinafore. However, their Star Trek parody was spot on as well, mixing cliches from both the original and new series. These ranged from the fact that every red shirt expected to die; that they all leaned to the side when the ship was attacked; that the scottish crew member loved to drink; that the Vulcan was overly logical; that alien probes were painful… well, you get the idea. The set was a parody of the original set, with TNG artwork (Okuda-screens). The computer, Al (Jason D. Rennie), kept controlling things, except when he wouldn’t open the pod doors. The music was updated to reflect that Star Trek setting and changes, although the best reaction came when the entire cast started singing “Star Trekking, across the Universe…”.
Musically, the production was excellent. Although the score was pre-recorded, the vocal quality of the cast was spot-on, having been made up of a number of locals actors with operatic quality voices (a number of whom had done local opera and caberets). Some of my favorites were Jessie Merlin as the Captain; we’ve seen Jessie before in “The Beastly Bombing. Jessie has a true operatic voice, and is an expert in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, and is just fun to listen to. Also strong was Ashley Cuellar as Josephine—her credits indicate that she’s done a lot of caberet singing (you can hear her music on her MySpace page). As Ralph, Aidan Park had an incredibly strong voice. Of course, singling out these three is difficult, as the entire cast was great.
[æ denotes members of one of the 4-A performing arts unions, including Actors Equity ]
Acting-wise, you could tell this ensemble was just having fun with their characters. Just watching Michael Levin as Datum’s movements in a minor role, or Paton Ashbrook’s logical movements, or the little asides of Victoria Gonzalez… these folks were just getting into their characters and going with it. Of particular note was James Jaeger’s Deadeye, where he was going wild with being a lizard (he was doing so good, the Geico Gecko should watch out). This fun is infectious, and the audience had a great time with it. This is a testament to the talent of the actors and the skills of Jon Mullich, the director. Also help shaping this production were William A. Reilly (Musical Director) and Stephanie Pease (Choreographer), who made the stage come alive with movement and music.
Turning to the technical side: the sets (designed by Tony Potter) did a wonderful job of presenting the Star Trek bridge, with TNG elements, in a limited budget. There were consoles and computer screens and interactive displays—this went far beyond just a few blinking buttons, folks. Of course, this isn’t a surprise, as his bio makes it clear he is a Star Trek geek, and has worked with many of the original crew. C0stumes were by Caitlin Erin O’Hare, and reflected the original series costumes quite well. The lighting by Sarah Templeton made effective use of the space and created the mood well with color. This was all held together by Kimberly Bullockæ (Production Stage Manager) and Keiko Moreno (Assistant Stage Manager).
“U.S.S. Pinafore” continues at the Crown City Theatre Company until, well, I don’t know. It was supposed to close August 8, but keeps being extended (right now, it looks like it goes through September 5). Tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets, as well as through Goldstar and LA Stage Tix. If you are at all into Gilbert and Sullivan or Star Trek, go see it.
Upcoming Theatre and Dance. September starts with “Free Man of Color” at the Colony on September 4. The following weekend brings “The Glass Menagerie” at the Mark Taper Forum on September 11. The weekend of September 18 is Yom Kippur; no theatre is currently scheduled. The last weekend of September brings “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre. October is currently more open, with “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East ticketed for October 9. and “Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre ticketed for October 30. I should note that October 23 will be a Family Gaming Night at Temple Ahavat Shalom. , November will see “Bell, Book, and Candle” at The Colony Theatre on November 13; “Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum (November 10–December 22, Hottix on sale September 9, potential date November 21); and “Amadeus” at REP East (ticketed for November 27). December will bring “Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson (November 23–January 2; Hottix on November 2; planned date December 11). Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.
As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.