Ruddigore; Or the Witch’s Curse, the McGill Savoy Society’s latest production of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, opens brightly with a terrific overture. The curtain opens to reveal a chorus of professional bridesmaids lamenting the recent lack of weddings – and therefore employment – amid a masterfully crafted set of rolling hills and a charmingly misshapen house. All the eligible suitors desire Rose Maybud (Julia Miller), the prettiest maiden in their seaside village, but she has eyes only for Robin Oakapple (Matthew McKeown), the virtuous yet shy farmer. Alas, Robin is too timid to profess his love for Rose, and a book of etiquette forbids her from speaking until spoken to. Despite the actors’ best attempts to extract humour from this post-Victorian predicament, it unfolds tediously through song and dance until Robin’s seafaring foster brother Richard Dauntless (Michael Loewen) arrives.
Richard – whose spirited performance of “From the Briny Sea” is an exception in the underwhelming first act – only makes matters worse for the would-be lovers when he reveals that Robin is actually Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, a descendant of a long line of baronets under a witch’s curse compelling them to commit at least one crime a day, or die. Unfortunately, the otherwise excellent orchestra plays far too loudly while accompanying the 14 songs that make up the first act, rendering them exceedingly difficult to follow. The majority of Ruddigore‘s opening 90 minutes is devoted to musical numbers about madcap characters who always seem on the verge of marrying each other. But the songs do little to advance the plot, and the scarcity of dialogue slows the show to a sluggish pace.
Audience members willing to endure the first act – plus intermission – are duly rewarded when the curtains rise at Moyse Hall for the second time. Robin and his faithful servant Old Adam (John Chrama) enter a stage that has been transformed into a Gothic hall lined with grotesquely animated portraits of the previous cursed baronets, clowning delightfully as they undertake their newfound immoral obligations. Dissatisfied with Robin forging his own will and filing a false income tax return, his ghostly ancestors step out of their portraits in a cloud of smoke to inform him that neither they nor the terms of the curse are to be trifled with in the chilling “When the Night Wind Howls.”
Although the second act is much more entertaining than the first, it is far from perfect. The singers struggle to keep pace with “My Eyes Are Fully Open,” one of the funnier numbers in which they conclude “This particularly rapid unintelligible patter isn’t generally heard/And if it is it doesn’t matter.” For the audience, of course, it really does matter whether the lines are sung intelligibly. Many more lines are lost when the two-dozen actors cluttering the stage drown out one other’s words in a sea of asynchronous voices during the larger numbers. In general, the stronger songs are those in which only the principle characters perform, many of whom – in particular, Mad Margaret (Nour Malek) – have quite agreeable voices.
Unlike Gilbert and Sullivan’s wildly successful Mikado and Pirates of Penzance, the original run of Ruddigore was roundly dismissed by critics and was actually booed by audiences. While this production. 124 years later, will undoubtedly avoid a similar fate, it is equally unlikely to be remembered as one of the Savoy Society’s better stagings of the famed duo’s operettas.
The final performance of Ruddigore is February 19 at 7 p.m. in Moyse Hall, in the Arts building. Cost $12 for students. See mcgillsavoy.ca for more information and ticket reservations.