So you’re born a future baronet, but with a catch: due to a spell cast long ago by an angry witch, each generation, in order to take the title, must commit a dastardly crime every day, or die an agonizing death. Can an honest man beat the curse and win his true love in the process? (Dun, dun duuuuunnnnnn!)
Somewhere between Shakespeare’s witches and modern day’s ubiquitous Twilight series, Gilbert and Sullivan capitalized on the 19th-century craze for gothic spectacle with Ruddigore, which premiered at the Savoy in London in 1887. This is not one of the most oft-produced works in the G&S oeuvre, but seasoned performers of the genre often name this show as one of their favorites, perhaps because the songs are as singable and engaging as just about anything the Victorian comic masters wrote.
Sierra Madre Playhouse, in their second foray into the G&S realm, follows up last year’s Yeomen of the Guard success with a modern take on Ruddigore this fall, playing through November 10 at their nicely renovated theater north of the 210. The small and able cast is helmed by director/choreographer Eugene J. Hutchins, and the theater company’s board is smart to take advantage of his expertise: few theater directors have the operatic training and experience Hutchins has achieved, and this company has committed to making the most of it. The result is a savvy adaptation of a too-neglected treasure, updated to the 1950s and kitschily set in Morro Bay, a little seaside town up the California coast, steeping in quaint charm and provincial atmosphere, even today. The lyrics have been updated as well, as a stated reverence for Gilbert’s grand rhetoric doesn’t change the fact that the original language can be hard for modern audiences to follow. But the adaptation is deftly handled, with a light touch and 20th-century references that maintain the wit of the original, but make the dialogue more understandable to the modern American listener. Changes like “eating his pizza with knife and fork” and buying the orphan up the hill a Barbie doll make sense, and didn’t seem too heavyhanded. Some of the other changes are a little more “nudge nudge, wink wink”, but the audience didn’t seem to mind: the evening was peppered with plenty of laughter.
The sets and costumes are well-executed, and the projected backdrop and lighting do much to add atmosphere to the small, 99-seat space. Although the orchestral introductions at the beginning of each act are piped in, pianist Jennifer Lin takes over as soon as the curtain goes up, ably handling a difficult reduction of the lightning-fast score: she plays with spirit, exhibiting a strong understanding of the style — this music should never take itself too seriously, but its success requires serious skill. No problem there.
The singers are a mixed bunch, some coming from musical theater and some from opera, but almost all are well-suited to the genre. As is common in the G&S formula that has been called “structured fluff”, the presumed stars of the show are a lovely young couple, desperately in love (and as usual, not the sharpest knives in the drawer): in this case, the etiquette-obsessed Rose Maybud (our own Maria Elena Altany) and Robin Oakapple (Nick Molari), born Ruthven Murgatroyd, the heir of the accursed family, who faked his death and is now hiding in plain sight as a simple law student. Altany possesses one of the strongest voices in the group, with a strong, sweet sound throughout, and handles the vocal acrobatics of the G&S ingenue with no visible effort. She also manages to modernize her character a bit, a tad smarter and more independent than the vapid coquette so commonly portrayed.
Molari’s voice is stretched a bit, but he handles it well, and as much as his lyric baritone has great potential to grow into the style, his comic acting and physicality are top-notch. He is particularly engaging when working in duet with his henchman, played by Rich Brunner. Brunner has plenty of experience in the theater world, but has spent more time in recent years on the classical side, singing early and contemporary choral music with groups such as the LA Chamber Singers. This return to the stage gave him a chance to show off his remarkable affinity for physical comedy, and the strong connection with Molari made bits of the show reminiscent of the best of the buddy films, right down to the ancient, irresistible “walk this way” gag. This Noah’s Ark approach to staging is a common G&S device, and there is ongoing pairing up throughout, sometimes at a dizzying pace. (We’ll refrain from naming too many pairs here, lest we give away too much.)
The scene-stealers, however, are undoubtedly Richie Ferris, as Ruthven’s younger brother, Despard, and his lady love, Mad Margaret, played by Catherine Leech. Ferris has a visage so malleable that every expression tells a new story, and his dark yet flexible voice suggests technical depth as well. Leech, whose background includes much early and Baroque music, was equally impressive for her supple mezzo voice and her strong comic timing. Again, she and Ferris made a good pair, two souls separated and driven mad by circumstance, but reunited in Beatnik bliss in the second act. (Spoiler alert: the City of Bakersfield should be paying them a hefty PR fee.)
A Fabianesque James Simenc was just right as Richard “Dick” Dauntless, right down to the surflike waves pomaded into his hair. He embodies the early gnarly surfer dude, recently returned from the merchant marines to the screams of the local cheerleaders. Dick’s attempts to steal dear Rose from Robin/Ruthven are well-timed and appropriately conniving, and his light tenor treatment of the score (he’s described as a “baritenor” online) and mastery of doo-wop clearly echo the indelible lotharios found chasing Sandra Dee or Annette Funicello across the sand. (Surprisingly, this same lightness and flexibility made his patter the easiest to understand. Take notes, tenori.) The rest of the cast did an admirable job, with strong singing and plenty of energy. The group scenes show a connection among the cast members that comes from hard work and a thorough enjoyment of one another, and the comments we heard after the show confirm that this cast is having as much fun as their audience.
The company, too, shows a passion for what they do, and a flair for creative marketing that should draw the attention of local opera troupes. With well-organized marketing and shrewd board members, it was obvious that this show is not dependent solely on ticket sales and random donations: an energetic and entertaining announcement from one of their board members at the top of the show gave clear directions on how to donate (and even how much), yet miraculously without the nagging tone that makes us shift away from public radio during the membership drive. Innovations such as beautifully printed keepsake lyric books (complete with pictures of the cast and a full-color print of the original poster from the show’s debut) were available for just $5, and concessions were varied and reasonably priced. This is a house to keep a eye on, and we look forward to whatever comes next.
Ruddigore continues through November 10. For information and tickets, click here.