The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players return to City Center for a ten-performance stint of four operettas, comprising the so-called big three Pinafore,” “Pirates” and “Mikado” plus “Ruddigore.” The one-time amateur group has survived 35 seasons, bringing more or less authentic renditions of the Savoyard shows to New York and on tour. Fans of G&S turned out in force for the opening of the new production of “Ruddigore,” pretty much filling the house (the cavernous upper balcony is closed for the engagement) and appearing to have a high olde time.
Ruddigore” has always been a problematic entry in the canon. The 1887 piece was a vast disappointment after the boys’ prior offering, “The Mikado.” The premiere was met with catcalls, and the piece withdrawn after its initial run.
Unlike other G&S works, “Ruddigore” was not revived during their lifetime. D’Oyly Carte dusted it off in 1920, after which it found a place in the repertoire. And rightfully so; this is one of the stronger scores from G&S, and the plot — about a witch’s curse on the bad baronets of Ruddigore, starting with wicked Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd — still holds comedic interest.
Albert Bergeret, artistic director and co-founder of NYGASP, seems to control every aspect of the group — and without his extreme efforts one imagines they would long ago have ceased operation. Bergeret shines as musical director, and makes an energetic conductor as well; his stage direction, though, is mightily clumsy. Choreographer David Auxier, who receives co-director credit, does an even weaker job on the dances.
The scenic design is credited to “Albere, after Edward St. John Gorey.” Which is to say, Bergeret again. This “Ruddigore” is being billed as an all-new production, but the scenery is threadbare, with the “all-new” first act backdrop displaying more shreds and patches than a wand’ring minstrel.
The producers do themselves no favors by promising a Gorey-inspired design; it only sets up expectations of class and style which are sorely lacking. The faces of the nine portraits of ancestral Murgatroyds are Gorey-fied, but the physical production is of the mothball variety. Costumes by Gail J. Wofford (Mrs. Bergeret) are similarly challenged, no doubt due to budgetary constraints.
However, the performers fare considerably better. David Macaluso, as Sir Ruthven, continues to impress as a musical theater comedian. He is abetted by the other Murgatroyds of the occasion, Richard Alan Holmes as Despard and NYGASP managing director David Wannen as Roderic.
The Richard of Dan Greenwood is also a plus, and Sarah Caldwell Smith does a fair job as the not-very-interesting heroine Rose Maybud. Jennifer Piacenti provides humor and spirited energy as Zorah, while Caitlin Burke pleases the crowd with her scenery-chewing Mad Margaret before settling down to do a skillful job in her second-act scene.
Let it be added, though, that the distractingly awkward dancing of the male chorus — billed as “Bucks and Blades” in the program — only stresses the troupe’s amateur roots. Average audience age at the performance caught, incidentally, appeared to be well over 65.