Music's energy keeps 'H.M.S. Pinafore' afloat

It's probably unjust that Gilbert and Sullivan are always referred to in that order. Their comedies get a lot of their fun from Gilbert's over-the-top characters and wisecracking lyrics, of course. But without Sullivan's zesty music to put all that across, they wouldn't be nearly as lively more than a century after their premieres, would they?

No. And that's why Opera Carolina's staging of "H.M.S. Pinafore," which opened Thursday, is most firmly on course when the music gets some wind in its sails.

Alicia Berneche's vibrant tones and spunky demeanor leave no doubt that Josephine - the "lass that loved a sailor" of the show's subtitle - won't let an arranged marriage come between her and her sweetheart, Ralph. Matthew Trevino drives home the menace of the lovers' nemesis, Dick Deadeye, by delivering the music and dialogue in his red-blooded bass. When Buttercup, holder of a secret about Ralph's origins, starts hinting at what she knows, Deborah Fields lets fly with a gypsy gusto that lights the bombshell's fuse. John Muriello, as Josephine's father, equals Fields' zest in her duet with her.

And sometimes there's power in numbers. The Opera Carolina Chorus wells up around Josephine and Ralph, who have just declared their love, to give Act 1 a ringing finish. The Charlotte Symphony supplies a current of energy that sometimes murmurs beneath the singers, sometimes bubbles up around them. It also changes tone, guided by conductor James Meena, to amplify Josephine's soulfulness when she stops to sort out her feelings.

Stage director Bill Theisen is so intent on supplying laughs that his shtick works at cross purposes with those introspective turns. But he certainly keeps the stage bustling.

The chorus has to do nearly as much dancing as singing, and Theisen has gauged his choreography to stay within the group's ability to step lively. And Theisen's comic momentum helps carry along the principals whose singing isn't a main attraction. In Ralph and Josephine's scenes, Colm Fitzmaurice's voice pales alongside Berneche's, but he's always a lively presence. And Gary Briggle, as the full-of-himself Sir Joseph Porter - Josephine's fiancé - talks his way through his numbers as much as he sings. But he cuts a lively figure, even when he's acting breathless. Maybe that isn't always acting, but it still works.