Pink cheeked and diabolical
Ruddygore; or, The Witch’s Curse, premiered in London in 1887, and was the 10th of the 14 comic operas written by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan during their long collaboration. It was not an instant hit, and it never achieved the popularity of The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance or HMS Pinafore. But as The Lamplighters’ current production shows, Ruddygore is, even so, a lot of fun.
Unlike the other three G&S faves, it’s an oddly sinister piece. The play’s tropes are laced with dark and ominous forces: unpleasant ghosts abound, curses lead to generations of agonizing deaths, the bashful hero transforms from innocent to devil, the adorable heroine has a streak of avaricious ambition, the mad mezzo is truly and irredeemably (it seems) unbalanced. The threats to the bubbly and capricious world of topsy-turvy-dom that was so consistently and lovingly created by Gilbert come not from bad chappies filled with envy or doddering and misguided functionaries of the class system but from the fragile characters themselves.
Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd (Sam Faustine) has abandoned his title because of a witch’s ancient curse that specifies that the baronet must perform one crime a day or die in agony. Each of his ancestors has suffered this fate: who after all, the logic runs, can commit a crime a day without suffering an agony of conscience?
Disguised as an innocent rustic, Robin Oakapple, Sir Ruthven has fallen in love with the village beauty, the deliriously named Rose Maybud (Megan Fleischmann). But Ruthven is too bashful to propose, instead he asks his foster brother, sailor Richard Dauntless (Robert Vann), to speak for him. Bad idea. Dauntless falls in love with Maybud, and proposes for himself.
Somewhere in there arrives Mad Margaret (Jennifer Ashworth), who is in love with the current baronet, Sir Despard Murgatroyd (Chris Uzelac). Sir Despard has spurned Margaret as part of his crime-a-day activities, driving the poor maid around the bend. Though which bend of many is up for debate.
As Act One closes Robin has been revealed as Sir Ruthven, Despard has affianced himself to Mad Meg, and Rose is engaged to marry Sailor Richard. The tangle has gotten as tangled as a ball of wool in the paws of a litter of six-month-old kittens.
Act Two is set in the picture gallery of the Murgatroyd mansion. Here the ancestors step out of their gilded frames to bait and torment the newly criminal baronet, Sir Ruthven. They are led by the biggest sinner of them all, Sir Roderic (William Neely). What fun!
No spoilers here. The dilemma of each Gilbert and Sullivan operetta is solved by an absurd flight of illogical logic. “How quaint the ways of paradox …” and Ruddygore is no exception. The solution to everyone’s woes is as delicious as it is improbable, but you have to attend to have its specifics revealed. It is good-hearted silliness that lies at the heart of Gilbert and Sullivan’s endearing oeuvre and long success. Ruddygore ends with fervent goodwill and the sunniness of a day in May.
As always The Lamplighters’ production is colorful and ebullient. The singing was terrific. Some of the charming sets were part of an exchange with the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Houston and were based on the original 1987 sets by the Lamplighters. Costumer Judy Jackson MacIlvaine oversaw the refreshing of the Regency costumes. Lead roles are double-cast throughout the three-city run.
– Jaime Robles
Ruddygore continues through February 28, moving from Walnut Creek to San Francisco and Mountain View. For tickets and information, visit lamplighters.org.
Photo: The Lamplighters’ Sam Faustine (Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd) is haunted by William Neely (center top) as the ghost of Sir Roderic Murgatroyd with George Ashworth and Chris Focht as ghostly ancestors in Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddygore, or, The Witch's Curse. Photo by David Allen.