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High school students conquer aboard 'Pinafore'

Cousin Hebe (Kristen Anderson, upper right) only has eyes for Sir Joseph (Franz Harris), but he can't take his eyes off Josephine (Emma Reese) and Ralph (Connor Bergin) in Red Wing High Schools spring musical. "H.M.S. Pinafore," by Gilbert and Sullivan, continues its four-day run today and Sunday. - photos by Ruth Nerhaugen1 / 2
The tango between Little Buttercup (Mikayla Cota) and Captain Corcoran (Alex Christensen) is among the highlights of Red Wing High School's production "H.M.S. Pinafore."2 / 2

The title "opera" can be intimidating, even when paired with the adjective "comic."

But Red Wing High School students cast in the comic opera "H.M.S. Pinafore" showed no fear, no weakness Thursday night when they performed a show that is part of musical theater history.

"Pinafore" opened to a small but appreciative crowd -- another group not intimidated by Gilbert & Sullivan. The production will be staged again at 7 today and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Sheldon Theatre.

Clearly, one of the reasons Director Sean Dowse chose "Pinafore" was because of the talented young singers and actors available. Mikkel Gardner gets credit for his work as the students' vocal director.

Because most of the story is told through songs, diction is critically important. Happily, nearly all of the lyrics can be easily understood.

Leading the cast are two students playing a lass and a sailor who have fallen in love despite the differences in their social status. Josephine and Ralph are played by Emma Reese and Connor Bergin.

Reese has a wrenchingly lovely voice that conveys a range of emotions -- melancholy, confusion, joy -- and an equally striking appearance. Bergin may not be an opera singer, but he holds his own in every way. Together they are dynamite.

The incomparable Little Buttercup -- "a plump and pleasing person" -- is critical to the story line and also to the humor that lifts "Pinafore" above the level of a soap opera. Actress Mikayla Cota gives it her all -- and that's more than enough.

Buttercup has lots of secrets, and she's masterful at keeping them from Josephine's father, Captain Corcoran (Alex Christenson). The captain is a bit naïve and a bit of a bumbler, but he steps up to tango with Buttercup with confidence.

The man chosen by the captain to wed Josephine, Sir Joseph (Franz Harris) is appropriately pompous and shortsighted when it comes to the people around him -- most notably Cousin Hebe, played to perfection by the animated Kristen Anderson.

Curiously, a fourth "couple" emerges at the play's denouement, when the secrets held by Dick Deadeye (Matthew Knudson) are revealed. But as Dick would point out, "I've spoke too much already." Queen Victoria's (Valerie Gehn) role must remain veiled in mystery.

The main characters are generally surrounded by groups of sailors, led by Boatswain Davis Leaf, another good singer as well as dancer; or Sir Joseph's sisters, cousins and aunts, who flit about the stage in a pack.

"Pinafore" is a dancing show, choreographed by Staci Hanson. The sailors started picking up the rhythm opening night, and this aspect of the production builds to a massive tap number.

The dancing and the music are not exactly what you'd expect from Gilbert & Sullivan, for good reason. The version performed by RWHS students was adapted and updated for the Guthrie Theater.

Modern dance steps are possible thanks to the orchestra, led by Dan Marrs, which includes an electric bass, synthesizer and percussion in addition to traditional instruments. It all works.

Another striking plus is the costuming, designed by Karen Boek and Dace Miller. From the sailor suits to the elegant long gowns, the costumes are impressive.

The show has some special effects that make everyone sit up and pay attention. Joe Wollan was in charge of pyro effects; Russell Johnson handled sound and Lucas Phillips did the light design. Heather Finholm designed the set, which consists mostly of the less-than-fearsome H.M.S. Pinafore.

Although "Pinafore" was written in the 1800s as a spoof of British society in days long past, the Guthrie adaptation makes it more accessible to today's audience.

By choosing it for the high school spring production, director Dowse has exposed the young people to an important part of theater history and at the same time given local audiences an opportunity to sit back and be entertained with romance, action, music and humor. Who could ask for more?

If you go ...

Who: Red Wing High School students

What:"H.M.S. Pinafore"

When:7 p.m. today, 2 p.m. Sunday

Where:Sheldon Theatre

Tickets:$22.50 adults, $14.50 students

More info:651-388-8700, 800-899-5759,