BWW Review: Comic Opera RUDDIGORE is Here to Charm Your Socks Off & Lift Your Spirits
Is there anything the Milwaukee Opera Theatre touches that doesn't turn to gold? Their latest collaboration with Skylight Music Theatre is Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore, a sweet, hilarious, melodramatic comic opera made exceedingly charming under the inspired watch of co-directors Jill Anna Ponasik and Catie O'Donnell. With these creative cohorts in tow, I swear there's nothing attached to Ponasik's name that I've not adored. Her vision is a special kind of magic, and Milwaukee is lucky to have her.
So what's a Ruddigore? It's a town where a long line of Baronets are plagued by a witch's curse: they must commit one crime each day or die in agony. Generation after generation, these gentlemen have each suffered painful deaths after no longer being able to bring themselves to commit atrocities day in and day out. See, the Baronets are not bad men - they're merely doomed to choose between a life of crime or death by torture. Ah me, c'est la vie!
The show is rife with twists and turns and plot devices like mistaken identities, good guys becoming bad guys and vice-versa, and characters giving romance the runaround. The central duo is Robin Oakapple, secretly the rightful Baronet of Ruddigore, and Rose Maybud, an eligible and love-hungry maiden. There's also Sir Despard Murgatroyd (the unwitting false Baronet), Richard Dauntless (a troublemaking goon - also rather unwitting), Mad Margaret (who pines for Sir Despard), Old Adam Goodheart (Robin's faithful servant), and a trio of professional bridesmaids whose job it is to be on standby each day for any potential weddings. Got all that? Tip: Read a thorough synopsis before you go.
In this Skylight/Milwaukee Opera Theatre production, the cast also plays the part of the orchestra. Music Director Tim Rebers (who also single-handedly tackles the ghostly six-part harmony in Act Two) actually took Ruddigore's original orchestral score and adapted it for a chorus of voices singing acapella. There are very few actual instruments played, save for a chiming music-box-like celeste, an eerie waterphone, the ding of a triangle, the woe-is-me of an accordion, and a duet between a guitar and viola. The overall musical direction is quite genius. High-five, Tim Rebers!
And high-fives to this all-around phenomenal cast. Our leads, Robin and Rose, are played by Skylight alums Doug Clemons and Susie Robinson, respectively. Ms. Robinson's voice is utterly sublime, her lovely stage presence perfectly befitting a leading lady. Clemons, for his part, sings beautifully clear as a bell and brings adorable charisma to the bashful, good-natured Robin. Their chemistry is sweet, their comedic timing on point. There's nothing about this pair that doesn't delight.
As for the others, standouts include Adam Qutaishat as Richard Dauntless, a seafaring schmoozer with a lusty heart and dim-witted brain. This character's heart speaks to him often, like a lovesick conscience on his shoulder. Qutaishat delivers his heart's inner musings with an overly-dramatic French accent, inhaling deeply from imaginary cigarettes. He's a hoot.
The ever-awesome Diane Lane plays Mad Margaret with ample glorious insanity. Lane always slays her vocals and characterizations, but her role in Ruddigore is especially fun to watch.
In fact, there isn't a part in Ruddigore that isn't fun to watch. It seems as though all of the folks on stage are having a genuine blast, and that kind of energy is infectious, especially in the intimate Studio Theatre. There's nothing better than a show with big heart, talent, and vision performed on a small stage.
The staging itself, as well as the costumes, takes its cues from 1920s silent films. Costumes are rendered in black and white as a projection screen lends scenic backdrops. Lighting/Projection Designer Nathan W. Scheuer nails the use of light and shadow for scenes that that, though stripped down, are plenty atmospheric.
It's in how these elements play together that makes Ruddigore a delicious, joy-inducing cocktail to be savored. In a nutshell, the whole thing is freaking adorable. Laughter rings hearty and true. Romance elicits little sighs. The actors are immensely amusing and strong-voiced; the acapella chorus, a delight. And sometimes, this Ruddigore is just plain lovely. Consider the bar set skyward for Milwaukee theater in 2020.
Photo credit: Mark Frohna