Sunday, October 13, 2019

"Ruddigore" - Pittsburgh Savoyards Serve up a Timely Halloween-Appropriate Treat





Whether by design or not, Pittsburgh Savoyards' decision to stage "Ruddigore" in mid-October ties in nicely with the theme of the upcoming Halloween season. Subtitled "The Witch's Curse," the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta includes spooky elements that go hand-in-hand the end of October shenanigans - things like ghosts, the supernatural and a witch's curse.

But as one of the lesser performed G & S works, audiences may not know that, instead of dark and shadowy, it's all spoof and satire and jolly good fun. The work has a sort of Mel Brooksian or Monty Pythonian feel that also conjures up some of the mood of Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" In short, feel free to take along the kiddies and rest assured they'll not be traumatized by the experience.

For a volunteer orchestra comprised of professional and semi-professional musicians, the nearly 40-piece ensemble opened the show with a lively overture, considered by many as one of Sullivan's best. Under the capable direction of Guy Russo, the orchestra provided just the right amplitude to underpin the work of the singers on stage, hardly missing a beat during the challenging patter songs and bolstering with aural beauty the more lyrical ballads.

The show begins on a humorous note when two bridesmaids emerge from the other side of the curtain dressed in frilly pastel chiffon, an entrance that leads to an introduction of the plight of Rose Maybud, a comely village maiden, who's yet to be caught up in a nuptial commitment. Her story is sung by Zorah (Mia Bonnewell, a Savoyard who's performed the entire canon of G & S works).

The spotlight is then turned on Rose, who reveals herself as a hopeful yet discriminating bride in "If Somebody There Chanced to Be." As the virginal heroine, Jenna Ziccardi projects a demure, yet willful maiden who can sings as well as she can act. Note: the role is handled in alternate performances by Sarah Marie Nadler.

Smitten by Rose's charms, the shy Robin Oakapple (Michael Brawdy) is too timid to do anything about advancing his love interest. He's also hiding the fact that he's the true baronet of Ruddigore, Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, who fled from the family curse by running away to a small village in Cornwall and letting the onus of the curse fall on his younger brother, Despard (Cory Nile Wingard). It seems as if an ancestral baronet burned a witch at the stake, only to have the wretched crone utter a final curse that mandated that the baronet and his successors had to commit a crime each day in order to avoid a torturous death.

In his effort to woo Rose, Robin solicits the help of his half-brother, Richard  (Russell Henry Holbert), a sailor who just pulled into port after a ten year absence. Instead of shoring up his half-brother's chances for romance, Richard ends up falling in love with the maiden himself.

This ill-pairing of potential lovers is just the beginning of a series of maidens who match up with suitors they don't love. This includes an ill-fated love affair between Mad Margaret (Meghan Hilker) and Despard  whose rejection of her sent her mental state over the edge. An even more impossible pairing is one that pits a dead baronet, Sir Roderick Murgatroyd (Bob Herald) with the living and love smitten Dame Hannah (Sally Denmead) that culminates in a narrative surprise too delightful to reveal here.

Gilbert and Sullivan's plot for Ruddigore is even more topsy-turvy than those of their other operettas. In this case, it caused my theater companion to remark that she thought the Victorian operetta heavyweights might have been high on drugs when they wrote it. Rest assured, however, that everything rights itself in the end, and comes with one of those clever twists G & S are so well-known for.

Production highlights start with imposing Act Two special effect that involves the awakening of the portraits of the long line of baronets that fill a picture gallery in the ancestral castle. It's an exciting bit of paranormal chicanery. Every scene in which the chorus sings together is especially beautiful, and keep an eye out when Robin, Despard and Margaret team up on the spirited patter song  "My Eyes Are Fully Open. It skitters along in  gleeful delight.

Director Michael McFaden is especially adept at blocking, keeping the large cast moving dynamically with choreographic touches by Kelsey Walls. Interestingly, McFaden directed a 1997 Savoyards' production of "Ruddigore" and adds some humorous touches to the current staging, which includes some topical place references locals in the audience should find familiar

While works by G & S might not be everyone's cup of tea, the Savoyards fill a unique theatrical niche for Pittsburgh audiences. They appear to have a lot of fun putting on their productions, and it's the sort of fun that's contagious and leaves you feeling light-hearted and emotionally buoyant. 

Judging from the fact that the Pittsburgh Savoyards are in their 82nd year, they've proven to have had a lot of staying power and are a valuable element in the city's broad range of theatrical riches. At the moment, they're mounting a work appropriate for the Halloween season, which makes it a likely outing for both veteran G & S devotees as well as those who consider themselves operetta ingenues.

"Ruddigore" is at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie through October 20. For tickets, go to https://www.showclix.com/event/ruddigore.

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