Piece together, for a moment if you can imagine, all of the fancy finery that floats to mind when you utter the words Victorian London. Let those images of haughty parlors, high cinched collars, and stodgy outfits with miles of lace drift dreamily through your mind along the delectable operetta-style story telling of W. S. Gilbert. Add the accompaniment of Music by Michael Nash, T. German Reed, and a little hint of Arthur Sullivan. Blend in the heavy hand of melodramatics and you have? A Sensation Novel: A Musical Play in Three Acts. The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre is proud to present the American premier of Gilbert’s A Sensation Novel, a fine piece of humorous theatricality that toes the line of overtly melodramatic operetta which hasn’t been produced anywhere in the world in nearly 100 years. Directed by Michael Blum with Musical Direction by Erica Rome, both of whom created and edited the current performing version from the remains of the original work unearthed in the public domain, this unique theatrical experience lives up to its namesake with sensational performances among the hysterics and histrionics of the genre— Victorian soap operas that revolve around crime and plot twists long before the modern soap opera came to exist.
Elegance does not begin to do the gorgeous set that Resident Scenic Designer Alan Zemla has crafted into the space justice. Set in the novelist’s study on Bankside overlooking the Thames in 1871, Zemla infuses not only the notions of an eccentric writer into the room with his wildly eclectic decorations— everything from a trophy-mounted boar’s head to an exotic Egyptian sarcophagus— but he captures the essence of the play’s primary emotions in his color palette, a radiant scarlet-burgundy hybrid, which is oft accentuated by the illuminations developed by Lighting Designer Fuzz Roark. Zemla’s true masterpiece arrives in the form of the life-sized bookcase, upon which are three gloriously outward turned spines of actual sensation novels, painted with decadence and historical reverence. The book itself, capturing quite soundly the larger meta element of this production, faces title outward and serves as a portal through which the characters enter and exit the scene as they come and go from within the novel. Zemla envelops the mystique of the era in his appealing designs with an artistic flair.
But a Victorian parlor, even as lovely as the one that Zemla has crafted, isn’t enough to transport modern audiences to a time that has passed beyond our comprehension. Completing the aesthetical success of the show, Costume Designer Fuzz Roark suits each of the five performers in the most endearing outfits that are the epitome of Victorian fashion. Lace collars and cuffs, draping layered bustles on ladies dresses, smart sharp attire for the gentlemen, perfectly stacked pin-curl wigs for the ladies, each costume lovingly and painstakingly designed with precision and close attention to detail. There’s even a full white lace covered dagger sheath for the wedding scene so that a certain character can conceal her dagger therein. Roark fits the costumes not only to the actor with a practiced eye but also to the character which they portray, blending life seamlessly into performance.
Musical Director Erica Rome, who has worked alongside Director Michael Blum in recreating a great deal of the text that was lost to time with this work, showcases her ability as an orchestral conductor as well as a sturdy harmonizer. Ensuring that the difficult patter and recitatives that Gilbert was well known for once he formulated his dynamic duo with Sullivan, Rome alights clear articulation into her performers as they sing through these lovely melodies and harmonies. Blending the four and five part harmonies throughout to sound welcoming, refreshing but still classically operatic is a challenge which she rises to and meets with aplomb.
Blum focuses the intention of the melodrama in a fashion that makes it palatable and amusing to the modern audience. These characters have rich depth despite their stock creation and Blum adjusts the intention of the performance accordingly. Despite the over-lengthy silent-film style intro to the piece, which features the characters silently enacting the occurrences of the novel’s first volume through a series of intense strobe lights and racing keyboard music, Blum keeps the scenes clipping along in a fashion that moves time with ease. His blocking in the unique space at Spotlighters draws the attention to the melodramatic gesticular hallmarks— hands thrown over foreheads in great swooning sighs and enormous gasps which reveal shocking news.
As a five person ensemble, the musical blends that these individuals create are simply divine. “Happy Ending” is a delightfully uplifting quartet featuring all of the characters except the Wicked Baronet. “We Must Depart” a quintet that arrives at the end of the second act, features smooth blends of the five voices led by Brian Kraszewski, that vibrate with ominous uncertainty. The melodramatic interactions among the characters are quite titular as well. A daring embrace between two characters who love one another outside of the novel but are sworn enemies within, or a scathing glance between bitter divas all read with exacting reality heightened to the hilt for the piece’s overall placement in genre history.
In a sensation novel it is a detective’s duty to arrive late and solve absolutely nothing so that the characters can continue to bumble about along their merry way with their silly involvements. Playing Detective Gripper, Brian Kraszewski arrives on the scene exactly as described, often in absurd costumes which are all a part of his various disguises to remain incognito. Kraszewski also serves as The Spirit of Romance, the inspiration to the Author (Jim Knost) who drives the opening scene. A warm voice that compliments the group wonderfully, he falls in step with the movement of the piece and the musical numbers with ease.
Operettas feature darling young ingénues and this story has Herbert (Connor Moore) a fair young curate. His intense enthusiasm for his true love, The Lady Rockalda, gushes out of him like a waterfall on fire. Moore delivers a string of petulant protestations at the top of the second act over being left out of the second volume of the novel and makes quite the fuss therein. There is a huge woeful lament from Moore at the top of the third act that ripples with agony and frustration but quickly shifts into something far more sprightly as “The Life I’ll Lead Her” begins. Infused with a spirit most merry Moore begins skipping about the stage with mean-spirited gaiety and thoroughly enjoys his plotting to torment his new bride.
Coupling this number into a duet called “The Upper Hand”, Alice Grey (Autumn Boyle) a virtuous governess appears on the scene and struts her rotten prowl in this unsavory duet with Moore. Many of Boyle’s numbers are true soprano arias and solos and her classically trained voice is more than perfectly suited for these scenes. Her rafter range is experienced throughout the performance but particularly noteworthy in the quartet “Oh Despair, Oh Distraction!” Her bright serene voice delivers a sweet classical compliment in her duet “Goodbye to You” shared with the Wicked Baronet and her solo feature “A Joyless Infancy” is ripe with a plethora of woe and bitter sorrows. But it’s her throw-down diva duet with Lady Rockalda (Evangeline Ridgaway) that brings true operatic thunder to the performance.
The duet in question, “Hand Over My Jewels” begins with Boyle blasting rage and fury in Ridgaway’s general direction and then the pair begin to lay vocal siege upon one another, with Boyle trilling away into the rafters while Ridgaway carries the lower lines of the harmony. This dynamic and pivotal moment is captivating and sheer operatic genius. Ridgaway has an equally classical sound and remarks vocal beauty upon each of the songs she sings. Her opening aria, “Lovely Fiend of Fiction with the Yellow, Yellow Hair,” gives the audience a taste of the glory that is her voice early on and entreats them to enjoy her character as her layers unfurl. Sassy and smart and brilliantly voiced, Ridgaway delivers a stellar performance as Lady Rockalda, the Yellow-Haired Panther.
Sir Ruthven Glenaloon (Jim Knost) the Wicked Baronet is truly mischievous and diabolical with his little plots, but it’s the magnetizing natural tones of Knost’s voice that bewitch the mind, ensnare the senses, and captivate the attention span of all listening. With the perfectly crafted robust sound for all of his duets, Knost eases into the villain-type character giving him depth, charm and charisma that is undeniable. Doubling as The Author, Knost’s initial engagement upon the stage features him fuming about in frustration over the fix in which he’s found himself. From his very first note of “They Will Be Here” a brief dalliance of a duet with The Spirit of Romance, to his reprise of “Joyless Infancy” sung at Alice Grey, Knost owns every lyrical moment of his time spent on stage. Truly sensational, Knost has the perfect look and voice for both parts in which he has been cast.
It is a sensation in and of itself to see work that hasn’t been produced in nearly 100 years, and to attend an American premier of a musical is an honor all its own. With a brilliant cast and exceptional design, Spotlighters Theatre is delivering an exceptionally bold and creatively diverse piece of theatre.
Running Time: 2 hours with two intermissions
A Sensation Novel: A Musical Play in Three Acts plays through October 4, 2015 at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre— 817 St. Paul Street in the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore City in Maryland. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-1225 or purchase them online.