Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Through August 28
The Victorian Era operettas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are almost unique in the theatrical canon in that sometimes talent is not as important to a production’s success as gusto and enthusiasm.
You know what I am talking about: In almost every city, there’s some kind of a Gilbert and Sullivan company which puts on productions of Mikado or H.M.S. Pinafore. The leading lady is usually the producer or director’s wife, and she also sews the costumes — and the male chorus works hard at day jobs and comes together for rehearsal in the evening, where they strut about speaking in fake English accents to “get into character.” When the show actually goes up, the ensemble can’t necessarily carry a tune — but you almost shed a tear over their sheer joy at appearing in a production of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.
This enthusiasm, so often evident in the most amateur of community theater productions, is missing in director Trace Oakley’s clunky staging of the G and S classic, Ruddigore. Part of the problem is a confused and misbegotten concept of presenting the play as a sort of homage to 1980s and 1990s slasher movies, a difficult box to shoehorn the show into, even with its overt spoof of gothic horror. There’s also a problem with entrusting it to an ensemble who, despite the best intentions in the world, are simply not up to the show’s requirements.
The musical numbers are executed with heavy-handed desperation, and even the show’s famous patter songs are redolent with anxiety: You can see the actors’ eyes flashing with dismay when they’ve dropped a line or two of Sullivan’s intricate lyrics.
Due to an ancient curse, whoever is the head of the noble Ruddigore family must commit one crime a day or die in terrible agony. The current eldest son, Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd (Nathan Jenisch), has evaded the curse by faking his own death and — this is Oakley’s somewhat incoherent touch — pretending to be a zombie. Murgatroyd loves nubile beauty Rose Maybud (Alena Bernardi), but she’s seduced by rascally sailor Dick Dauntless (Seth Freed), inexplicably visualized here as a werewolf. Meanwhile, Murgatroyd’s younger brother Despard (Sean Faye) is forced to assume the family mantle, until Dick forces Murgatroyd to come forward. Generally tuneful complications ensue.
Even a fairly scattershot production of Ruddigore boasts some good old-fashioned fun, and there are certainly plenty of charming elements on display here: In Act 2, the numbers involving the ghosts of the ancient ancestors of Ruddigore — who leap from their portraits in the family manse to menace young Sir Ruthven — are joyous ones. So is Faye’s wonderfully plummy turn (a nice channeling of Vincent Price) as the evil Baron in Act 1. Faye’s chemistry with Meg Dick Dauntless is droll (though I don’t get why he has to be a werewolf).
But elsewhere, infelicitous sloppiness sabotages the production overall. Averi Quinn Yorck’s muddy choreography and Oakley’s clumsy blocking only get in the show’s way. Oakley’s slasher/horror movie setting is a terrible distraction, and the performers’ attempt to enliven it with awkward shtick is distracting and just plain sloppy. Some of the performers have fine operatic voices — but others not only lack familiarity with the style, they’re also unable to hit the right notes.
More of a problem is the overall lack of excitement that undercuts the show: With a few exceptions, the performers look as though they are going through the motions while not really enjoying the quintessential Gilbert and Sullivan-ishness of the experience. We get the impression they’d rather be doing some other show, perhaps a horror-comedy musical. And that is just a shame.
Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave, Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. Through August 28. (800) 838-2006 or http://brownpapertickets.com/event2581451. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.