The darkly comic illustrations of Edward Gorey: and the bottomless well of contemporary political and topical references: inspire the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players' new City Center season this January as they mount a rare production of Ruddigore, a supernatural opera with a Harry Potterish plot, to be performed in rotation with the big three all-time G&S favorites: The Pirates of Penzance, H.M.S. Pinafore, and The Mikado. All feature the "hair-trigger comic timing" and the musical polish audiences have come to expect from America's "widely acknowledged specialists" (New York magazine) in comic opera.
The highlight of the season is Ruddigore (or The Witch's Curse), one of the less frequently performed Gilbert and Sullivan operas, but nonetheless a masterpiece that ranks high in the G&S pantheon. With its haunted picture gallery, ancestral spirits, virtuous maidens, and other parodic elements of Victorian melodrama, Ruddigore is a perfect match for the Gothic sensibility of the late Mr. Gorey, who once designed a production of The Mikado (never staged in his lifetime). The genesis for this new Ruddigore, which is being created with the cooperation of the Gorey estate, goes back three decades to when NYGASP founder and maestro Albert Bergeret sat in the audience for the Broadway production of the Gorey-designed Dracula. As he leafed through the Playbill for that show, Mr. Bergeret noted that Mr. Gorey wanted to design a Gilbert and Sullivan show. At first, Mr. Bergeret tried vainly to commission a Gorey-designed G&S production. Now, decades later, he has succeeded in using Gorey's illustration style to design his own.
"I do not presume to imitate or reproduce the whimsy Gorey brought to everything he did," Mr. Bergeret says. "But I have taken what I consider a functional design for the show and combined it with my watercolor sensibility, using illustrative techniques reminiscent of Gorey: the way he treats wood paneling, for instance, with a series of long lines and perpendicular cross hatching, and also the stonework. I use these as models for the set paintings. Of course, Gorey worked primarily in pen and ink, and these sets are definitely in color."
Ruddigore has graceful melodies: the ghostly "When the Night Wind Howls" has been called "the finest piece of descriptive music Sullivan ever wrote." It has marvelous patter, including perhaps the ultimate patter song, "It Really Doesn't Matter" (also known as "The Patter Trio"). And it has gloriously spooky stage effects (the scene of the long-dead ancestors stepping out of their portraits prefigured Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George, not to mention the Harry Potter stories, by a century).
It should be noted that although it has the word "gore" in the title and Victorian audiences were a bit put off by the original spelling, Ruddygore, which reminded audiences uncomfortably of the taboo Britishism "bloody" (W. S. Gilbert changed the title by substituting an "I"), there is nothing especially gory about Ruddigore. In fact, children love the show, with its ghostly English house party, in the Hogwarts manner. Young people are especially welcome at the January 17 matinee. (Ruddigore will also be performed Jan. 14 and 16 at 8pm).
Certainly there's more to cheer here than a single wonderful opera, albeit a newsworthy one. There will also be a rousing H.M.S.Pinafore, the first big G&S hit and the beginning of musical theater as we know it (Jan. 10, 3pm, and Jan. 12, 7pm, Free Kids' Night); a rollicking Pirates of Penzance, which never loses its musical charm or its comic bite (Jan. 9, 2pm, Jan. 15, 8pm); and a grand Mikado, perhaps the most iconic of all G&S operas, performed in countless languages, including, most recently, Icelandic (Jan. 8 and 9, 8pm, Jan. 16, 2pm).
The redoubtable NYGASP cast and crew, absent from the City Center stage for one (long) year, are all in fine fettle, including familiar faces and voices like soprano Michele McConnell as a soaring Mabel; charismatic bass-baritone David Wannen, true to the song he sings, as the Pirate King; and handsome tenor Colm Fitzmaurice in the male ing_nue roles of Frederic in Pirates and Ralph Rackstraw in Pinafore. As always, patter master Stephen Quint will be on hand for one of his inimitable roles.
When it comes to The Mikado, the brass will crash and the trumpets bray, and Ko-Ko's "little list" will inevitably be updated (keep an ear out for Bernie Madoff and Mayor Bloomberg this time). Soprano Laurelyn Watson Chase is a delectable Yum Yum; Louis Dall'Ava once again makes an astoundingly roly-poly and droll Pooh-Bah; and Keith Jurosko dons the pillbox for his majesterial Mikado.
After a one-year hiatus from City Center, all is right with NYGASP: as right as right can be.