By BRUCE BROWNE
An enigmatic plot set amidst Victorian atmosphere, rife with ensembles, solos and chorus work. Sound familiar? Yeah, plus this one has ghosts, cursed baronets, and professional bridesmaids, with a kind of “Miss Havisham” to boot. Ruddigore is the name, Gilbert and Sullivan are the creators and Mock’s Crest Productions on the University of Portland campus is the company.
Neither opera nor operetta nor musical, Ruddigore is a melodrama, “a dramatic or literary work in which the plot, typically sensational and designed to appeal to the emotions, takes precedence over detailed characterization,” writes stage director Bruce Hostetler, quoting the Wikipedia definition, in his program notes. And that form posed a challenge for composer and performers.
Before writing the music for Ruddigore, Sir Arthur Sullivan was already enjoying recognition as one of the crown’s most prolific composers in the 1880s, producing a body of orchestral, song and choral works including popular songs like “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Lost Chord” and the acclaimed 1886 cantata The Golden Legend, becoming a favorite of the public and knighted by Queen Victoria in 1883. His librettist partner W.S. Gilbert’s body of work varied in genre and theme – plays, short stories, poetry both serious and comedic. Some would be recycled – portraits coming to life – in his collaborations with Sullivan. In 1885, they teamed up (to our everlasting joy) on The Mikado (672 performances).
On the heels of Mikado, then, came Ruddigore (1887), originally Ruddygore, a return to comedic melodrama and to Gilbert’s thematic fascination with the supernatural, in this case the ancestral portraits come to life. This plot treatment is used by J. K. Rowling to good effect in the Harry Potter series, but it did not signal great success for Ruddigore. The show ran only nine months, and was roundly criticized from its debut forward. I think there’s a reason: it does not stand easily beside Pinafore (performed at Mock’s Crest last year); Pirates of Penzance, or The Mikado. Yes, there are some pretty tunes by Arthur Sullivan, and excellent examples of Gilbert’s famous “topsy-turvy” brilliance. But there’s altogether too much patter — a specialty of Gilbert, but used more sporadically, and thus more effectively, in the previous shows.
Perhaps, then, like other melodramas, staging Ruddigore requires going to extremes to garner audience appreciation. That’s the weak hand Mock’s Crest was dealt here, and despite some aces, at times, this production overplayed it.
Mocks’ Crest Productions has a history of maintaining a good year-to-year lineup of singers; this year was no exception: Bobby Winstead, Margo Schembre and Bronwyn Jones were all cast members of last year’s highly entertaining HMS Pinafore. The company has also been associated with a long line of fine singers in the Portland area: Scott Tuomi and Brian Tierney to name two, and the redoubtable John Vergin, prior to this year a fixture at Mock’s Crest, whose absence was noted by audience members (overheard), and noticed in the production.
The orchestra, expertly guided by Tracey Edson, provided excellent support for singers and chorus. Occasionally overbalanced by winds and brass, it never superseded the voices, as it was placed in the best spot on stage, in back of the singers. It is really the only choice in this venue, with no pit and a deep stage, but would this positioning were the norm for many other shows!
All voices were well cast, and nicely matched. As the disguised farmer, Robin Oakapple (Bobby Winstead), a vibrant tenor, was revealed to be the real Baronet, Ruthven Murgatroyd the real heir to the Murgatroyd curse which, upon his disappearance, passed to his brother, Despard. Did you get all that? The show is filled with switched personalities of this sort, who can never really break free of themselves. Robin, the good/Baronet Ruthven (the evil), Mad Margaret unwed/Mad Margaret wed, Rose Maybud: OCD maiden joined at the hip to her etiquette book/Rose Maybud the fickle flirt.
Two cast members who displayed particularly good vocal ability were Cassi Kohl, as “Mad Margaret,” the first Baronet’s long lost fiancée, and Margo Schembre as Dame Hannah. The soprano lead, Kelliann Wright, possesses a lovely voice; I only wished she had sung more intelligibly. Tenor Joshua Randall, as Richard Dauntless, was a jolly tar, turning hornpipes on request, and with just the right rubbery facial expressions.
The chorus was resonant and balanced, a vast improvement over last year; either there were some new members, or the chorus master was improved, or both! Whatever changed should be retained.
But the singing’s success was undermined by melodramatic excess. True, one of the characteristics of melodrama is the exaggeration of emotions. However, the staged gestures were often over the top, doubling down on the melodramatic. I was reminded of a gracious old liner taking off from the pier, with multitudes waving – over and over and over.
Movement by the chorus, and often the leads, was faces and spaces. Faces – eye rolling, freezing in place, chin tilts (and even body rolling (one character) on stage many times over); and spaces – planned pauses (some too obvious) after many of the ensemble numbers and almost all arias, inviting, even soliciting sometimes, gratuitous applause.
Some of the schticks were wonderfully inventive: the switchy-changey coat trading of one baronet to another at the end of Act I, and in Act II, the inventive simplicity of the shuffle across stage during “It really doesn’t matter (matter, matter, matter).” And Laurence Cox’s turnabout in the second act from staid butler, Adam Goodheart, to “Igor/ ‘quasi’-modo” was a laugh riot. But these were the exceptions, and they were mostly one-offs.
Pacing of the show was spirited, a kind of West Wing move and talk. Sometimes, the spoken lines were articulated too quickly to savor — almost a “patter-speak.” Many in the cast were able to patter and act; in some cases, only the rapid-fire articulation prevailed.
The challenge for Mock’s Crest is to stop short of overplaying the melodramatic hand Gilbert and Sullivan dealt, and just continue to give us the wonderfully pure performances Portland audiences have come to love.
Mock’s Crest’s Ruddigore runs through June 26 at University of Portland’s Mago Hunt Center. Tickets at 503-943-7287 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Portland choral conductor Bruce Browne has directed and/or sung in a dozen Gilbert & Sullivan performances in Arizona, Ohio, and California.
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