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Guthrie gives 'Pinafore' a modern twist

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HMS Pinafore
Robert O. Berdahl is Capt. Corcoran and Christina Baldwin is Buttercup in the Guthrie Theater's production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore," with additional material by Jeffrey Hatcher.
Michal Daniel for Guthrie Theater

You wonder what Gilbert and Sullivan might say if they were alive to see the new production of "H.M.S. Pinafore" currently playing at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. 

The British operetta premiered in 1878, but the Guthrie's interpretation of Arthur Sullivan's score has a distinctly modern flavor.

"[Sullivan] was admittedly writing for an an 1878 audience. So his arrangements were up to date for that time period," music director Andrew Cooke explained. "We said, 'let's try something for a 2011 audience.'"

Cooke stayed faithful to the original melodies, but his new arrangements borrow inspiration from disco, jazz and especially rock opera.

A straight-laced number like "Things are seldom what they seem" becomes a lush tango. "My gallant crew, good morning" gets a rock beat and a Jerry Lee Lewis keyboard part.

Purists have protested. Cooke said during one performance a woman got out of her seat five minutes into the show, went over to a Guthrie staffer and demanded he "put on the real music."

Cooke says he's gotten plenty of compliments, too. He argues the updated arrangements help modern audiences appreciate the humor in W.S. Gilbert's libretto. 

"If anything, having a little comedic play with the music underlines and highlights some of those jokes," Cooke said. "It gives the actors a chance to also bring things in that are a bit more contemporary than staying tied to a 19th century point of view."

"H.M.S. Pinafore" plays through August 28 on the Guthrie's Wurtele Thrust Stage. 

A recording of the production will air on public television stations around the country on Oct. 14. The broadcast will be part of the PBS Arts Fall Festival, featuring performances from around the country.