By Fran Syverson
“Ruddigore” is a rarely performed satirical Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that poked fun at the Victorian mores of its time when first presented in 1887. Sierra Madre Playhouse director Eugene J. Hutchins decided to take a more contemporary view of it, and set it in the 1950s, where it easily lampoons the Emily-Postian rules of proper etiquette of that era.
His version of “Ruddigore, or the Witch’s Curse,” with its castles, ghosts and romances, takes place not in Cornwall, but rather in Morro Bay near Hearst Castle.
Rose Maybud is the epitome of innocent maidenhood who, whenever she meets a new social situation, refers to her autographed Emily Post book. Such as—whether she dare approach shy Robin Oakapple, whom she adores, or must wait for him to make the first move. Maria Elena Altany as Rose and Nick Molari as Robin sing a charming duet as they ponder this very question.
But a dread secret hovers over their lives. Robin is really Ruthven Murgatroyd. As such, he inherited a witch’s curse that he must commit a crime each day, or menacing witches will kill him. Robin escaped the curse by feigning his own death, leaving his younger brother Despard to carry out the crimes. Will Robin be found out?
Thus the comic melodrama unfolds, interwoven with intrigue, deception, love, and spookiness. It brings us an evening’s worth of Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous bouncing tunes and rapid-fire lyrics.
Cast members fit their roles to perfection, most of them dual roles. Michelle Holmes swishes about, martini in hand, as Hannah who gives match-making a try. James Simenc swaggers with self-confident sex appeal when, as Richard Dauntless, he tries to steal Rose away from Robin. So self-confident, he seems to flirt even with the audience!
Both the acting and the singing are standouts in this production of “Ruddigard.” The actors emanate wide ranges of emotion with their facial expressions and body language. Richie Ferris leers menacingly when, as Despard Murgatroyd, he challenges his deceitful older brother, Robin. Catherine Leech as Mad Margaret convinces us of not only her madness, but also her craftiness as she plays the innocent beggar.
The excellent projection of their voices, whether singing or speaking, is notable. Upon occasion, this has been a problem at the Playhouse, especially for patrons with lessened hearing. Not this time! True, you may not understand every word of the fast-paced lyrics, but can you ever?—with G&S operettas? The quality of the vocalists is exemplary and even throughout the entire cast. Musical director Jennifer Lin is accompanist.
Completing the cast are cheerleaders and Black Spirits: Jen Faith Brown, Elora Juliana Casados, and Kaylie Ann Warfield, and in smaller roles of surfers and ghosts: Joshua Clark and Stanton Kane Morales. Allen Andrews is Roderick Murgatroyd and also Ukulele Dave, Rich Brunner is Adam Goodheart, and Kim Shahbazian is understudy for Mad Margaret.
Librettos are offered as fundraisers, and offer interesting reading while awaiting the curtain-opening. For the special Oct. 5 performance to accommodate patrons with limited hearing, Teri Grossman was the audio describer, and Sheri Geerer and Mona Jean Cedar the ASL interpreters.
Assisting Hutchins, director and choreographer, is Rachel Berney Needleman. Matthew G. Hill, working with Caitlin McCarthy, has designed a set that transforms from a boardwalk in Act I to the murky spider-webby castle (Hearst Castle?) interior in Act II. Video artistry creates illusory evil spirits and a huge Morro Rock. Mark Jespersen, David Moreno and Tom Kirkpatrick were the set carpenters.
Estelle Campbell and Liz Stoltz are the producers. Andrew Espinosa is the stage manager and sound operator. Credit Jeanine Lambeth Eastham for costume design ranging from ‘50s sportswear to black hooded ghosts. Sarah Williams is her assistant. Cecilia Gutierrez is light board operator and makeup designer. Barry Schwam handled sound design and Sammy Ross lighting design. Julita Penido and Asher Maese are the backstage crew. House manager is Tim Orona. Jennifer Scott is technical director and props mistress.
Anne Marie Atwan and Mike Dessin operate the spotlight. Liam Carl designed the poster art, and Ward Calaway did the program design and layout. Michael Sirota did the production photography. Philip Sokoloff is publicist. Accessiblity outreach coordinator is Maria Zuccarello.
“Ruddigore” will continue at the Sierra Madre Playhouse Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 10. Evening curtain times are 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Admission is $25 for adults, $22 for seniors (65+) and students (13-17), and $15 for children 12 and under.
The Sierra Madre Playhouse is located at 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Ample free parking is available behind the theater and in other city lots. Restaurants on Baldwin Avenue and Sierra Madre Boulevard offer pre- and post-theater dining. For ticket reservations or information, phone (626) 355-4318, or visit the website, www.sierramadreplayhouse.org for online ticketing.