On Saturday night, I walked into the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre with certain anticipations. As my third Victorian Lyric Opera Company production, I expected phenomenal singing, beautiful costumes, and an overall joyful stage presence. I am proud to say that I was not disappointed. If you are a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, Ruddigore or The Witch’s Curse is a production you do not want to miss.
Led by Director Helen Aberger and Music Director Joseph Sorge, the play follows the story of Robin Oakapple (Joshua Hughes), a young farmer in a fishing village who is in love with Rose Maybud (Emma Jensen). While he is too shy to declare his affections for her, he soon finds that is the least of his problems. We soon learn that he is a member of the cursed Murgatroyd family line, and doomed to a life of committing one crime a day under his real name Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd. Though he tried to hide from this family curse, characters from his past begin to find their way to the fishing village, and Robin finds a increasing difficulty in living the life he desires.
Full of coincidence and humor, Gilbert and Sullivan created an amusing script that left me wondering what disaster would occur next for the determined Reobin Oakapple. I was pleasantly surprised to witness such an intriguing plot within the piece. A typical Gilbert and Sullivan production showcases two young lovers who meet obstacles in their attempt to live happily ever after; however, at numerous points, Ruddigore left me wondering how Robin and Rose could possibly overcome the obstacle of his curse. The mystery made for a memorable performance.
The work from Set Designer Bill Pressly and Costume Designer Jesse Shippley made for an aesthetically pleasing production. The set for Act One in the Fishing Village involved Rose’s cottage, which was covered in ivy and flowers. This alone was pretty, but the set for the Picture Gallery in Ruddigore Castle was particularly impressive. The back wall was comprised of large picture frames in which ensemble members of the male chorus were standing to create the images of the Murgatoyd ancestors. Then during “Painted Emblems of a Race,” the number in which they advise Robin on how to handle the family curse, the ancestors stepped out of the large frames, which emphasized the illusion of the portraits coming to life. The set choices pushed the number over the top, and enhanced the magical feel of the show.
The costumes were just as impressive, especially for the ensemble of bridesmaids. Shippley dressed the women’s chorus in Victorian era dresses that brought color to the stage, and the variety in gowns helped each bridesmaid individually stand out.
A Gilbert and Sullivan production is nothing without talented musicians, and that begins with the orchestra. Led by the Assistant Conductor Rebecca Henry, the 31-member orchestra played each piece with excellence. Beginning the overture at the very top of the show, the musicians brought the score to life, which helped me begin to notice Gilbert and Sullivan’s clever musical shifts. For example, when the young lovers entered the story, the tune became lighter, especially when compared to the darker, louder tones that filled the theater as soon as a villain took the stage, such as in Sir Despard’s “Oh, why am I moody and sad?”
With such an interesting musical score, it was important to find a group of singers who could properly tackle the piece, and the company succeeded. However, it was the physicality that the actors infused into the songs that made the performance even more enjoyable. The Chorus in general showcased both an excellent blend of voices and even better stage presence from the opening number, “Fair is Rose.” They constant delighted demeanor helped carry me from point to point in the story. Jensen as Rose Maybud had a pure and skilled soprano voice that rang throughout the theater in “If somebody there chanced to be,” but also especially when she sang with her love interest in “I know a youth.”
Hughes had a brilliant vocal range; however, that which truly set him apart was his ability to tackle two such contrasting sides to his character. I was interested in Hughes’ transition from a pleasant farmer to a villain caught in the family curse. He seemed to have fun playing the villain, and the enjoyment he infused into the role made his portrayal of Robin a constant joy to watch.
Joseph Wilson as Richard Dauntless was simply hilarious with his Scottish accent and comedic timing, and Carla Rountree as Mad Margaret wowed me with her talent. Her gorgeous voice in addition to her physical acting abilities brought the role to life in “Cheerily carols the lark,” and also helped make “I once was a very abandoned person” one of my favorite pieces in the production. The number starred Robin, Mad Margaret, and Sir Despard Murgatroyd (Blair Eig), and forced the actors to sing at an intimidatingly quick pace. The three actors tackled the number perfectly, and infused the song with humor that pushed it over the top.
With its colorful design, talented singers, wonderful musicians, an intriguing script, and wonderful score, Ruddigore or The Witch’s Curse is by far the best Victorian Lyric Opera Company production I have ever seen. Gilbert and Sullivan fans should embrace this opportunity before it is too late.
Running Time: Three hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
Ruddigore or The Witch’s Curse continues on June 19, 20, and 21, 2015 at the Victorian Lyric Opera Company performing at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre at The Rockville Civic Center – 603 Edmonston Drive, in Rockville, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 314-8690, or purchase them online.