PRINCETON — The audience arrived Sunday at the McCarter Theatre Center for H.M.S. Pinafore primed for immediate enjoyment, ready to giggle at the sprightly tunes, ahhh at the pretty scenery — and with every reason to do so. Opera New Jersey's second production of its summer season is an artistic success on every front, a hit that happily has four more performances spread among Princeton, Morristown and Asbury Park.
The Tim Saternow-designed production, seen at the Santa Fe Opera and the Berkshire Theater Festival, is set on a handsome, reasonably realistic ship's deck, with an abundance of doors allowing numerous surprise entrances and symmetrical choreography by Jennifer Paulson Lee.
The anatomy of this triumph, however, begins with director Michael Unger's keen strategic awareness of what this operetta is and isn't. Anything but realistic, Pinafore remains an articulate social critique, but one whose humor best arises from fully investigated characterizations, even if the plot's personalities are paper-thin types.
At McCarter, humor wasn't cheap, and sight gags had genuine wit. The always-engaging Gilbert and Sullivan songs (so well played by the New Jersey Symphony Chamber Orchestra under Mark Laycock) were more so here because they so clearly reflected the characters' motivation.
In its own amiable way, H.M.S. Pinafore bordered on being Brechtian. With its intricate though predictable plot, artificial delivery of dialogue, and willingness to break the theatrical fourth wall, it doesn't pretend to be more than a tuneful theater outing.
The Lord of the Admiralty remained a hilarious monument to the Peter Principle. Portrayals of class-driven snobbery became little parables of slippery situational ethics. Even Little Buttercup's cloying, self-pitying opening song was beautifully played as an obsequious front for a Mother Courage-style businesswoman. Though not necessary, the production had its own topical references to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie that added conspiratorial dimension — and made you feel like an accomplice.
The cast was mostly young operatic voices, so over-singing was sometimes inevitable, mostly in Jennifer Feinstein's otherwise engaging characterization of Buttercup. Sean Anderson (Captain Corcoran), Mathew Edwardsen (Ralph Rackstraw), and Sarah Beckham (Josephine) all had the right kind of delivery and vocal weight, though some of the most alluring singing came from the otherwise unsympathetic Dick Deadeye, sung by James Harrington.
Malcolm Gets put aside his usual Broadway/TV leading man glamour to play the comically inept (but devastatingly witty) Lord of the Admiralty, adopting a thin, nervous singing voice and body language that constantly reminded you of the yawning gap between his quasi-imposing public self and often-clueless private self.
The role itself is full of references that could easily be obscure to modern audiences but were not, thanks to the sureness of his delivery and an inventive physicality that made everything self explanatory. Even the obligatory plot resolution with his marriage to Cousin Hebe (well sung by Caitlin McKechney) was made more believable when she reeled him in with a gentle whipping. Well, Britain's upper classes were known to like the rough stuff, right?
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.