by Jeff Grygny
If one were to presume that Jill Anna Ponasik were an airy sylph, composed of sunlight and butterflies, one need look no further for evidence than the shows she directs: everything she touches is infused with light-heartedness and joy. This is certainly the case with Ruddigore, or the Witch’s Curse currently showing in an innovative production by Skylight Music Theatre in collaboration with Milwaukee Opera Theatre. In Ponasik’s hands, its themes of betrayal, madness, and miscellaneous perfidy become a Fractured Fairy Tale; a musical romp limned in the pen-strokes of Edward Gorey.
Gilbert and Sullivan clearly intended the show as a burlesque of gothic romance: the plot is improbable and helplessly baroque; the characters are paper-thin; the dialog continually winks at the audience. The score, while it can claim nothing as catchy as “Tit Willow,” is still recognizably on-brand; the songs are plentiful, and none of them wear out their welcome. And such is the ingenuity of the director, and the sheer enthusiasm of the talented singer/actors; the production is mounted with such daring yet seemingly effortless inventiveness, with the artists reveling in the free play of their talents, that the show is a continuous delight.
Ponasik and Music Director Tim Rebers have audaciously chosen to eliminate the orchestra, and confer its parts on a chorus of doughty bridesmaids, who gleefully doo-wop their way through the entire accompaniment, with the exception of a few idiosyncratic instruments. And it works amazingly well. The vintage score suddenly appears fresh to our ears, giving it a fascinatingly contemporary feeling. What’s more, Choreographer James Zader has set the songs to movement that not only provides both witty sight gags and clarifying business, but somehow rises out of the very structure of the music, giving it temporo-spatial form. We see the music as well as hear it, with actions that illuminate the lyrics. For example, when Diane Lane, as Mad Margaret, courageously mugs her way through “Cheerily carols the lark,” the kneeling bridesmaids pass long-stemmed roses down the line for her to peevishly collect, until at length a withered blossom, and finally a potted plant, illustrate the trajectory of a failed romance.
The lovely-voiced Susie Robinson is enchanting in the role of Rose Maybud, a young lady who lives by the book of etiquette; Doug Clemons is the very model of an English gentleman too shy to court her. They share a scene in which their shadows cleverly enact what they are too demure to express. As a rough-hewn sailor named Dick who competes for Rose’s hand, Adam Qutaishat suavely voices the promptings of his heart as a Gauloise-puffing Frenchman. Shayne Steliga makes a powerful entrance as the cursed Baron of Ruddigore, strumming a black guitar (his singing holds more than a hint of rock and roll); and the chorus of bridesmaids seem equally thrilled whomever Rose happens to be marrying that day. Edward Lupella, who, as the only bearded bridesmaid, brings the base line, must be commended for the grace of his girlish cavorting.
The first act passes like a dream from which one wakes laughing. For Act Two, which has sometimes been said to lose momentum, they bring out the comic opera equivalent of heavy guns. There is a devilish feat of projection conjured by video wizard Nathan Shuerer, in which the entire line of the Murgatroyds, played by Rebers in a variety of period get-ups that recall The Black Adder, grimace out of picture frames like the animated portraits at Hogwarts. Then, there’s a bit of mildly misogynistic humor at the expense of poor Mags, followed by a silly patter song that comments on the silliness of patter songs (and might be lifted from The Pirates of Penzance) culminating in three verses rapidly delivered at once. And then—hey presto! the show is done. It seems that ancient curses can be thwarted simply by an expedient bit of Gilbertian parsing of the curse’s language.
In her program note, Ponasik praises Skylight Theatre for its long history of putting on “fearless and fun” productions. Ruddigore raises the ante on both counts. Queen Victoria Herself would certainly be most amused. In these perilous times, a light heart can be a precious thing indeed.
Skylight Music Theatre
in collaboration with Milwaukee Opera Theatre
Ruddigore, or the Witch’s Curse
Book by W.S. Gilbert
Music by Arthur Sullivan
Playing through January 19