By George Basler
Ruddigore: The Witch’s Curse may not be as well-known as some other Gilbert and Sullivan comic operettas, but W.S. Gilbert, the lyricist of the duo, listed it among his three favorites, and he ought to know.
The Summer Savoyards, who have staged a Gilbert and Sullivan production each summer for more than 60 years, will present the operetta this weekend (July 21-23) at Binghamton University’s Anderson Center. Directed by Julia Adams, it features a 25-member cast and live orchestra. Carolyn Amory is the show’s music director. Matt Vavalle is conducting the orchestra.
Ruddigore is one of her favorite Gilbert and Sullivan works as well, said Jana Kucera, who is playing Rose Maybud, one of the operetta’s main characters. This marks the 18th time she’s been in a Savoyards show. “I really love Gilbert and Sullivan,” she said. “It combines everything you love about musical theater with everything you love about opera. There are great arias combined with a ridiculous plot.”
Gilbert and Sullivan made their mark with shows that gently satirized the social conventions and class structure of Victorian England, and Ruddigore fits that mold. Besides tweaking the nose of Victorian society, it makes fun of the melodramas popular at the time and the operatic form itself, said John Starks, who is playing Richard Dauntless, a sailor.
Starks first began performing Gilbert and Sullivan back in his college days in the 1990s. This is his seventh Savoyards production. What attracts him the most as “a comedy scholar” is the humor in the operettas. “In some ways I like Ruddigore because it continues to poke fun at the male characters without making as much of a spectacle of the female characters,” he said.
Similarly, Kucera said, she loves singing Gilbert and Sullivan, because she can use her opera-trained voice while incorporating some fun into her performance. “I can get ridiculous,” she said, with a laugh.
Ruddigore’s convoluted plot, which has more twists and turns than a roller coaster, revolves around an ancient curse on the Murgatroyd family. The bearer of the curse must commit a crime a day or die a horrible death. Sir Ruthven, the current Baronet of Murgatroyd, faked his death to avoid such a fate, leaving the curse to fall on his younger brother, Despard.
But what will happen when Ruthven, who has been living the quiet life of a farmer, and Richard Dauntless, his confidante, both fall for Rose Maybud? Will Richard disclose Ruthven’s secret to Despard in order to win the girl?
Other characters include the lost loves of previous “evil baronets,” a faithful servant, a bevy of professional bridesmaids and a chorus of Murgatroyd ancestral ghosts.
A main target of the satire is the social restrictions women faced during the Victorian era, Kucera said. “It’s poking the right kind of fun,” Sparks added.
The 25-member Savoyards cast includes both Savoyard veterans and newcomers, ranging in age from 70 down to two sets of twins ages 12 and 13. But, overall, it’s a young cast. For example, Ethan Maher, an incoming senior at Union-Endicott High School, is playing Ruthven Murgatroyd.
Ruddigore has somewhat of a checkered history. When it first opened in 1887, it received a cool reception from critics and audiences. But some rewriting salvaged the show and turned it into a modest success. Its reputation has grown over the years, and the operetta now has a firm place in the regular rotation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s work.
Performing Gilbert and Sullivan can be a challenge, Kucera said. She has friends who have avoided productions because of their preconceived notion that the operettas are dated. That’s emphatically not the case, Kucera and Starks emphasized, noting Gilbert and Sullivan’s works remain relevant and entertaining as precursors to the Broadway musicals of today.
This was certainly true with Joseph Papp’s production of The Pirates of Penzance, featuring Linda Ronstadt, which was a major hit on Broadway in the 1980s. That production (and subsequent movie) incorporated Ruddigore’s patter song, “My Eyes are Fully Open,” into the action. The same song, with revised lyrics, was also featured in the Broadway musical Thoroughly Modern Millie when Millie must speedily type those lyrics to pass her test as a typist.
Both Kucera and Starks emphasized that audiences should come expecting comedy as well as song.
IF YOU GO: The Summer Savoyards will present Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore: The Witch’s Curse this weekend (July 21-23) in the Chamber Hall of Binghamton University’s Anderson Center. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday’s performance is at 3 p.m. Tickets at $25 ($20 for ages 65 and older and 12 and under) can be ordered in advance on the Savoyards website, www.summersavoyards.org/ruddigore, or through the Anderson Center box office, https://andersoncenter.my.salesforce-sites.com/ticket/#/events/a0S8W00000fCqgHUAS. They will also be available at the box office on the day of the performance.