Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Ruddigore Rises! – Obscure Gilbert and Sullivan an unlikely hit at the Sierra Madre Playhouse

Nick Molari and Maria Elena Altany share a sweet moment in Sierra Madre Playhouse’s “Ruddigore.”

Shortly after “The Mikado” became the greatest hit of their career, the duo of William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan took on a Halloween-esque story to make fun of melodrama: “Ruddigore.” Though this work was one of Gilbert’s favorites, the show laid a comparative egg, and didn’t really find a life until significantly later. This despite a delightful score, in some places reminiscent of classic horror film music.

Surprisingly, then, “Ruddigore” has stood the test of time right along with other Gilbert and Sullivan masterpieces. Its ridicule of the cardboard characters of melodrama, and its use of ghosts and curses make it fun to watch, even in modern times. Indeed, in the new production at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, it has been modernized: reset on the central California coast in the classic horror film era of the late 1950s, as if Hearst’s Castle was an actual home to a baronet. Oddly, for all the anachronisms, it works.

The tale is as silly as most Gilbert and Sullivans. A long-ago curse has left the inheritor of Murgatroyd Castle with a terrible fate: he must either commit a crime every single day or die in agony. To avoid this, young Ruthven Murgatroyd has faked his own death and joined the villagers as a poor but earnest law student named Robin. In his absence, his younger brother Despard has become the fated villain. As Robin shyly falls for Rose, who uses a book of Emily Post to order her world, the handsome sailor Richard Dauntless threatens to sweep Rose off her feet. From here it just continues to tangle.

Absolutely essential in any Gilbert and Sullivan are suitably trained voices, particularly for the leads. Maria Elena Altany all but vibrates with innocence and naivete as Rose, and sings like an angel. Nick Molari has just the right geeky niceness to make Robin sweetly shy and anxiously good, and also handles his songs with style.

Richie Ferris gives Despard the essence if villainy, right down to the sneer, while Catherine Leech makes his former love, Mad Margaret, just creepy enough. As the comparatively swashbuckling Richard, James Simenc also sings with authority and makes his character lovably colorful. Michelle Holmes turns the standard “older woman” part into a great cocktail-wielding stereotype, which sets a needed tone. All these folk are backed by a small but charming chorus who play townspeople, scary spirits and even some of the Murgatroyd ancestors walking out of their portrait frames.

There are some interesting choices in this production, on the part of the director. First, for much of the production the background is a projection made to look like grainy amateur film of the era. It sets a tone, but can sometimes distract some. Music Director Jennifer Lin plays piano for the singers, but much of the strictly orchestral moments revert to a taped orchestral version. This jumping back and forth works better than one would think.

Nods go to Matthew G. Hill, designer of the set and the videos which accompany them, for creating a strong sense of place on a budget. Nods also to costumer Jeanine Lambeth Eastham for getting the silhouettes right.

It seems, on the one hand, an odd choice to take something so elementally Victorian as Gilbert and Sullivan and shuffle it onto another continent and another time frame. Yet, it is also rare to get to look at a classic piece anew, and this “Ruddigore” has a lot of to recommend it, especially the talent of its leads. If you can overlook the more peculiar anachronisms (a 50s sailor discussing sailing ship battles, a nobleman in a California castle, or even a surfer of that era with a short board), and relax into the silliness, the music will carry the day.

What: “Ruddigore” When: Through November 10, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $15 students 13-21, $12 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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