by Philip Campbell
Even the most steadfast Gilbert and Sullivan fan will have to admit Ruddygore, or, The Witch's Curse, the 10th collaboration in the partnership's beloved canon, falls pretty low in the popularity polls. Leave it to Lamplighters Music Theatre to rehabilitate an obscure gem. The internationally recognized San Francisco-based troupe has revived the undervalued comic opera with characteristic skill and high artistic standards. Their winter production opened at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek last week and proved there's still some life in the old show yet.
After the smash success of The Mikado , the popular duo's next operetta faced some daunting odds, and the original production was only a qualified success. Musing on the new project, W.S. Gilbert had less of an ax to grind. His biting satirical wit wasn't focused so much on British class distinctions or politics. Not while his mega-hit still played to packed houses at the Savoy. Sir Arthur Sullivan (knighted four years earlier) was aching to advance his more serious musical ambitions.
After the pair settled their customary artistic wrangling, they decided on a send-up of Victorian melodrama, complete with a hateful hex, hidden identities, jilted and abducted maidens, ghosts, and some typically topsy-turvy moral dilemmas. The crafty Lamplighters cannot overcome some dull spots in the long first act, but there is cumulative appreciation of the convoluted plot as it develops. The shorter second half speeds by once the wordy exposition and comic set-ups are in place.
Restoring historical cuts and recreating the original dialogue (including reverting to the first spelling of the title, after prudish Victorians insisted it change to the less objectionable Ruddigore ) may cheer faithful Savoyards (G&S devotees/purists), but it also slows the action. Don't expect the light concision of H.M.S. Pinafore or Pirates of Penzance. The story of accursed baronet Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd (disguised as bashful farmer Robin Oakapple) attempting to escape his doom in a sleepy Cornish village unfolds with preposterous but classic Gilbertian nuttiness. The hamlet's chorus of professional bridesmaids bewails a long dry spell waiting on poor but virtuous maiden Rose Maybud to choose a mate. She can't make a move without consulting her primer on proper ladies' etiquette, so it looks like they're in for a long wait.
Enter virile tar Richard Dauntless (Robin's foster brother), who woos the lovely girl initially on his brother's behalf. He soon selfishly follows his own heart and, after a winning hornpipe, proposes for himself. Rose accepts, but shortly reconsiders when Robin declares his own true feelings. Sweet but indecisive, she continues to vacillate as the drama wears on.
Meanwhile, thinking his older brother Ruthven/Robin is dead, Sir Despard Murgatroyd has borne the hideous curse in his stead. He must commit at least one heinous crime a day or die. The witch, burned at the stake by his ancestor the first baronet, has so decreed. When Despard appears to fulfill some mandated mayhem, we finally know where the phrase "Heavens to Murgatroyd" came from.
Momentarily thwarted in his pursuit of Rose, the upset sailor peevishly spills the dirt on his brother, and the wicked baronet proceeds to switch places with his hapless sibling. He also rights a wrong he committed by reuniting with the maid he once unceremoniously dumped and drove crazy. "Mad Margaret," as she has come to be known (the split was tough on her), is unconvincingly nursed to sanity by marrying Despard. The once-nasty aristocrat has swapped the old curse for another.
Ancestral Murgatroyd ghosts are forced to descend from portraits in the family gallery to demand some action from the rightful heir to the curse. Woefully inadequate, after years in solitude, he has to consult a copy of Crime for Dummies to get ideas.
Enough is never enough for W.S. Gilbert, and you really have to be there, with a Monty Python taste for absurdity, to follow the befuddling plot. Suffice it to say (and it's not much of a spoiler), everything sort of works out in the end. Lovers are reunited, new romantic liaisons made, and the restless dead receive fresh vitality. All is right for the world as the Finale starts with, "When a man has been a naughty baronet."
Getting to that point has been the dubious plan all along, and it offers an entertaining excuse for the expected cavalcade of delightful ditties, duets, patter songs and stirring choruses. Sullivan supplied some charming dance music, too, which the ensemble executes with stylish liveliness.
Stage director Jane Erwin Hammett moves the cast with clever touches, and the crowd scenes are well-detailed. Everyone moves confidently through the drolly appointed sets (the village Inn is signed "The Crashing Boar").
Scenic designers Ric Tringali and Peter Crompton have recreated an earlier production and beautifully enlarged it for current theatrical venues. Lighting by Jack Buettler is atmospheric, and the always-sumptuous costumes of Judy Jackson MacIlvaine are especially attractive.
Traditional with Lamplighters, leading roles are doubled, but it's hard to imagine a more uniformly excellent team than the one on opening night. A return visit might be in order. The trio of principal males: Samuel Faustine as innocent Ruthven/Robin, Chris Uzelac as formerly evil Despard, and Robert Vann as salty sailor Richard fill their roles with strong, pleasing voices, and provoke plenty of laughter with expert comic timing.
Megan Fleischmann is the perfect G&S soprano, with a bright and pure tone, adorable looks and just enough flint to keep us from underestimating her personality.
As the 21st Baronet Sir Roderic, William Neely is imposing as he steps from his portrait to cajole his living relative into nefarious acts. The ensemble with his fellow ghosts had me thinking of conspirational scenes in Verdi: similarly dark, but in this case quite amusing.
Jennifer Ashworth goes gleefully over-the-top as the aptly named Mad Margaret. As soon as she enters with a butterfly net, thoroughly disheveled and looking like a cross between Lucia di Lammermoor and Miss Havisham, we know we're in for a crazy ride. Whether plucking the wings off insects or casually munching on nosegays, Ashworth still manages to sing with warmth and accuracy.
In the almost non-singing part of Old Adam (Robin's faithful servant), veteran Rick Williams shows the importance of tradition. One simply couldn't imagine anyone else in the role.
The orchestra is conducted by Baker Peeples, and we know from the start of the Overture that his part of the tradition goes on.
Ruddygore opens in San Francisco at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Fri. Feb. 19-21, and continues in Mountain View, Feb. 27-28. Tickets: lamplighters.org.