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Culture Theater

Moving on up

(David Sigafoose/Cromarty & Co.)


Moving on up

Play pokes gentle fun at the 19th-century British class system

I've seen lots of musicals these past two years in New York, but only one has had me whistling the tunes the next day: HMS Pinafore, performed by the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players, a group that tours the United States.

HMS Pinafore grabbed a London stage in 1878 and stayed there for nearly 600 performances. It and 13 other light operas by William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan remained popular into the 20th century: Chariots of Fire, the film set shortly after World War I, includes snatches. HMS Pinafore pokes gentle fun at the British class system, the Royal Navy, and the promotion of pedants to positions of authority.

That last lampooning is hard not to politicize at a time in Washington where bureaucrats without experience in business or war demand salutes from CEOs and generals. In HMS Pinafore the comical Sir Joseph, First Lord of the Admiralty, sings of how he rose in rank: "Of legal knowledge I acquired such a grip/ That they took me into the partnership." (The sailors sing, "Was the only ship that he ever had seen.")

Sir Joseph then offers advice suited to both London and Washington: "Now landsmen all, whoever you may be,/ If you want to rise to the top of the tree,/ If your soul isn't fettered to an office stool,/ Be careful to be guided by this golden rule./ Stick close to your desks and never go to sea,/ And you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navee!"

Another famous HMS Pinafore song is standard fare for those accused of wrongdoing: First say, "No, never," and then retreat to "Hardly ever." But it's all good clean fun, and that's a commodity hard to find on stage today-especially when you can whistle it.