Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 2004

This was my first trip over the mountains to the Pioneer Valley to see a Valley Light Opera production, which begs the question “Where the heck have you been for the past 25 years??” I have no idea how I could have lived so long in western Massachusetts and been oblivious to the fact that there was a troupe performing all fourteen Gilbert & Sullivan operetta (even “Thespis” yet!) on the other side of the Hoosac Range.

The show in question was “Ruddigore,” and I almost didn’t go because a) “Ruddigore” is not one of my favorites, and b) I had seen the Lamplighters do an absolutely perfect production in San Francisco in 2000. But it was a splendid Indian Summer day, and I threw caution to the wind and drove over the Mohawk Trail.

This was not a perfect production of “Ruddigore” but it was also not an awful one. “Ruddigore” has such a hopelessly mangled book that it is quite easy to mount a terrible production, but with a quarter of a century of Savoyard mayhem to their credit VLO was not likely to make that mistake.

VLO is an all volunteer organization, and as such it is VERY impressive. The set, designed by Ken Samonds, was absolutely top notch, and director Joseph Donohue has come up with a charming device in which to set the play. During the overture, two children, a boy and a girl (Schuyler Evans and Kimaya Diggs, who are actually both female), are seen playing with a lovely Victorian toy theatre. As they manipulate the stick figures, the characters come to life and enter the stage, pantomiming bits that inform us about who they are and what role they are to play. The boy and girl interact with them, as children do when they are deeply involved in imaginative play, and they reappear throughout the action of the play. At the final curtain the toy theatre is brought in again, and the children pull down the tiny curtain, signaling that their play is over. Permitting Gilbert’s convoluted and unlikely plot to be relegated to the realm of child’s play is ingenious. Of course it doesn’t make any sense, its just two children making it up as they go along, manipulating the characters to suit their own whims and fancies.

The acting and singing was not always up to the high level of professionalism evident in the set, the costumes by Richard Gregory, or the musical and orchestral direction by Juli E. Holmes. I was fabulously impressed that an amateur group could gather a full orchestra, and Holmes made them sound great. But in an amateur production you are going to have performers who are excellent and those who are adequate. The fact that there were far more excellent folks than adequate ones, and that those who were mediocre singers made up for it by being excellent actors and vice versa was heartening.

By far the best voice on the stage belongs to Elaine Crane as Rose Maybud (sweet Rose Maybud). She is also the neat little, sweet little craft Richard Dauntless so colorfully describes, and her cheerful offering of an apple to cure every emotional ill was delightful. She is weakly matched vocally by Nicholas Dahlman as Robin Oakapple/Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd and Jonathan Evans as Dauntless. Actually, once I remind myself that Robin/Ruthven is the character role in “Ruddigore” and not the juvenile tenor, Dahlman’s singing becomes more acceptable. But Evans voice was weak and his hornpipe was feeble. He made an altogether colorless Dick Dauntless. It took me years to figure out what the point of that character was, so perhaps Evans is still feeling his way towards clarity on that point too.

Real standouts in the cast were Matthew Roehrig as Sir Despard, and Emily Spura as Mad Margaret. Okay, I confess that, after Katisha in “The Mikado” and the Queen of the Fairies in “Iolanthe”, Mad Margaret is a role high on my list of those I MUST assay before I die. Spura is massively mad, with her flowing red curls and eye make-up that would make Tammy Faye Bakker proud. I enjoyed her solo in Act I very much, and her “blameless dances” in Act II. Roehrig has a strong stage presence and a stronger voice. He just needs a few whip-cracking lessons and he will be perfection.

It was a real treat to see and hear Dahlman, Spura and Roehrig perform the patter song in Act II, a piece that I love so much that I passed out the first time I heard it (I was so swept up that I forgot to breathe!) and another time had to be restrained from physically attacking a Mad Margaret who screwed up and omitted her entire verse.

Handsome in his ghostly grey tricorn is Alan Harris as the not-quite-dead-yet Sir Roderic Murgatroyd. Vocally Harris is strong, and physically he is impressive, but he is a rather wooden actor. The petite and feisty Lisa Woods was a good match for him as Dame Hannah.

Whenever a company tackles “Ruddigore” there are two burning questions. 1) Will they do the opening night version or the newly reconstructed version? (VLO opted for the former), and 2) How will they get those ancestors in and out of those picture frames? The answer to the latter is “Very well indeed.” The paintings on the scrims really did look like the actors behind them, the effect where the scrims slowly went from being front lit to being back lit, revealing their living inhabitants, was executed neatly, accompanied by dramatic lightening flashes on the walls of the Amherst High auditorium. And the total blackout which allowed the actors to slide the scrims out of the way was very brief, and absolutely total, even the orchestra was plunged into darkness. The faux flames that danced in the massive fireplace up center were the only illumination. Samonds has constructed a very inventive and effective Act II set, with hidden staircases that allowed the actors in high-hanging frames to descend to the stage gracefully and safely. Kudos also to lighting designer Steve Morgan.

The enormous auditorium (I swear I was at least a quarter mile from the stage in seat U, 2) was almost completely filled at the matinee I attended. It is wonderful to see so much community support and interest in light opera. I bought myself a souvenir calendar and added my name to the VLO e-mail list. I am NOT going to miss another one of their shows!

The Valley Light Opera production of “Ruddigore” runs through November 13 in the auditorium of the Amherst Regional High School on Triangle Street in Amherst. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes and is suitable for the whole family. Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for seniors or students. Call 413-256-4065 or visit VLO Web site for more information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004

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