Gilbert and Sullivan operas don't seem to be performed with great regularity these days. But the Michigan Opera Theatre Children's Chorus (MOTCC) on March 24 brought "H.M.S. Pinafore" to life for a local audience, most of whom probably had never seen Gilbert and Sullivan.
It was my first exposure to the MOTCC, and I had my doubts about the ability of a youth troupe to carry off the challenging music of "H.M.S. Pinafore." How good, I thought, could young teenagers be at singing, for example, "For he is an Englishman."
But the young actors were tremendous and inspiring, and, in a few cases, dumbfounding in how well they handled the material. Ryan Hurley from Huntington Woods as Captain Corcoran, looked, at 6' 2", every bit of 17. A fact-check revealed he is just 13. Hurley not only commanded the ship, but the part as well, wowing the audience with his perfect falsetto. When Pinafore is cast with adults, Corcoran's part is typically cast with a baritone. But as these kids' voices haven't changed yet, and there were a few vocal surprises.
Another standout was Livonia's Emily Crombez as Little Buttercup. At 15, Crombez was a confident presence on stage, and her voice was at its best with "Things Are Seldom what they seem," though perhaps not with her signature piece, "I'm called Little Buttercup." Farmington Hills' Avery Rausch, 14, took control of a difficult but stand-out role of Dick Deadeye, a rodent-like comic crew member on the Pinafore who must contort his body into a question-mark for the entire play.
The story line of "H.M.S. Pinafore" is of a seaman who professes his love for the Captain's daughter, Josephine, a woman clearly out of his social set. The daughter is meant to be married off to the much older Monarch of the Queen's Navy, Sir Joseph Porter, a cabinet officer. It turns out that Josephine, played by Waterford's Baily Spry, 16, also secretly loves seaman Ralph Rackstraw, played by Livonia's Alex Capeneka, 14. Buttercup, a woman who sells the seaman trinkets, lace and candy to give to their girls, reveals a secret at the end (typical of Gilbert and Sullivan stories) that she previously worked as a baby nurse, and had mixed up Captain Corcoran and Rackstraw at birth; thereby reversing their social status. The story is resolved with Corcoran and Rackstraw switching places, thus leaving Josephine to marry above her station since, as the daughter of Corcoran, now returned to rank of common seaman, she is now marrying the Captain of one of her majesty's ships of the line.
A period comic opera requiring English accents is not what I would normally choose for such young actors to perform. But these actors represent the best of the best from our area schools, and showed they can tackle just about any material. When Avery Rausch was asked how he managed his accent training, his answer was obvious: "I watched a lot of YouTube videos and 'My Fair Lady.'"
The set design by Monica Essen was striking and lit up the stage. Orchestra conducted by Dianna Hochella carried the music perfectly to match the young voices. If there was one sacrifice to the young vocal chords made, it was in microphoning the principal actors. While I have seen this turn out badly, the sound system in the opera house is of a quality that it did not detract at all, and we had the benefit of hearing them all quite clearly. Though obviously an English-language play, the opera house nonetheless employed the electronic super-titles for song lyrics. This was a good idea, because Gilbert and Sullivan is filled with big vocabulary words unknown to a lot of children in the audience, seeing the words as they were sung no doubt helped deliver the story: I know it helped my 10-year-old son.
There was, sadly, just one performance of "H.M.S. Pinafore," though there was a dress rehearsal that attended mostly by students on Friday, March 23.
The less than full-house on Saturday was a shame for such an excellent production. Not only was I charmed, but every seat should have been filled by a young aspiring actor from the Southeast Michigan region. I brought the one who belongs to me, a 10-year old named Henry, and he seemed equally charmed.
Though some of the MOTCC actors have been in the troupe for multiple years, each child must audition anew each spring. The auditions for the 2012-2013 season will be held at the Detroit Opera House on May 21, June 9 and June 11. Information can be gotten at www.motcc.org.
Be forewarned, judging by the "H.M.S. Pinafore" performance, the competition is fierce.