From its title, you might guess that Crown City Theatre’s USS Pinafore was simply an Americanized version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s classic comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore—but you’d be wrong. What adapter/director Jon Mullich has up his sleeve is something considerably more outer spacey than that—a cleverly written transformation of the British warship Pinafore into the Starship Pinafore. Yes, that’s Starship, à la Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise.

Though bona fide Trekkies will pick up on many more of the in-jokes than “outsiders,” even theatergoers who’ve never had the slightest interest in the Star Trek phenomenon let alone seen a single episode of any of the Star Trek franchise (=me)) will find much to tickle their fancies.

H.M.S. Pinafore’s cast of characters remains pretty much intact, though not quite as G&S might have imagined.  



The ship’s captain has become starship Captain Corcoran (Jesse Merlin).  In a shout-out to George Takei’s Lieutenant Sulu, seaman Ralph Rackstraw (Aidan Park) is now Asian and Tim Polzin’s Bill Bobstay has a Scottish burr like James Doohan’s Scotty. (Yes, I did do my Star Trek research.) “Able seaman” Dick Deadeye (James Jaeger) has turned into a tongue-flicking, half-reptilian, half-human hybrid. Ron Schneider’s Sir Joseph Porter would appear to be inspired by William Shatner’s portlier years in Star Trek sequels and spinoffs.  Sir Joseph’s lovely daughter Josephine (Ashley Cuellar) now has a bit of Princess Leia in her, and in fact phones the Star Wars heroine on several occasions.  “Poor Little Buttercup” (Mona King) has become an alien form of life (albeit still “round and rosy”).  The distaff trio of “his Sisters and his Cousins and his Aunts” (Paton Ashbrook, Misha Bouvion, and Victoria Gonzalez) have become People Magazine cover celebs in iridescent rainbow-colored wigs. A pair of characters not inspired by H.M.S. Pinafore are Datum (Michael Levin), who sports Cyborg eyewear similar to Geordi La Forge’s in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and an offstage computer called Al (Jason D. Rennie). (That’s HAL without the H.)  Completing the crew are Ashbook (in Spock ears), Dave Berges, and Bouvion.

USS Pinafore’s plot follows the G&S original surprisingly closely. Ralph is still in love with a girl above his station (the lovely Josephine), and Captain Corcoran still intends Josephine to marry Sir Joseph, despite her protests. Dick is as unpopular with his fellow crew members as ever, and “social station” remains integral to the plot, and to its final surprise twist.

Program notes indicate that Mullich’s adaptation is based on H.M.S. Pinafore “and other Gilbert & Sullivan works,” and in fact, in a nod to The Pirates Of Penzance, the Pinafore is said to be orbiting “Planet Penzance.” The Mikado’s “Three Little Maids From School” gets sung by the People Magazine cover trio as “Three Little Trust Fund Gals.”  There’s one more song borrowed from The Mikado and one from The Yeoman Of The Guard as well.  Much of the original libretto and lyrics remain, but Star Trek substitutions do pop up here and there. (“He Is An Englishman” has become “He Is An Earthling Man.”) Finally, there are the jokes and gags that non-Trekkies will have to have explained to them.  For example, it had to be explained to this reviewer why jokes about how red-suited crew members were inevitably beamed back dead were funny, but once I got the joke, the laughter around me made perfect sense.

The cast assembled for USS Pinafore couldn’t be better.  Merlin is not only an operatic virtuoso (with tons of baritone credits to his name) but a comic treat as well.  Cuellar sings every bit as beautifully as she looks, her legit voice as stunning as the pop pipes she shows off in her numerous local cabaret appearances.  Leading man Park makes for a terrific romantic partner for Cuellar, and he too has astronomical pipes.  Jaeger milks his every delectably reptilian moment as Dick Deadeye.  Ashbrook, Bouvion, and Gonzalez harmonize to perfection, and are funny to boot. King, who’s played Buttercup before in H.M.S. Pinafore, is a quirky, vocally adept treat, even in alien form. Velvet-voiced Schneider makes for a hilariously pompous Sir Joseph.  Berges, Levin, and Polzin complete the cast in expert form. Oh, and Rennie voices a terrific tribute to 2001’s HAL.

The vocal power of the ensemble, under William A. Reilly’s skilled musical direction, more than make up for the somewhat tinny-sounding (though well performed) prerecorded background tracks. I loved Stephanie Pease’s deliciously idiosyncratic choreography and Caitlin Erin O’Hare’s Star Trek-inspired costumes.  Tony Potter’s set replicates an Enterprise-like starship interior amazingly well given budget limitations, and is expertly lit by Sarah Templeton.  Kimberly Bullock is production stage manager and assistant director. Keiko Moreno is assistant stage manager. 

Considering the legion of Star Trek fans out there from here to deep space, it’s no wonder that USS Pinafore is selling out performance after performance. Non-Trekkies need fear not, however.  In the same way that you didn’t have to be gay to love Crown City’s recent smash hit Big Gay North Hollywood Wedding, USS Pinafore is likely to please audience members as outside its niche as this reviewer. Whether Trekkie, Gilbert & Sullivan fanatic, or neither of the above, you’re likely to have a galactically good time at USS Pinafore. 

Crown City Theater, 11031 Camarillo Street, North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
May 30, 2010

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