A Sensation Novel – Bodice Gripper

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A Sensation Novel, Photo Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Chris Aldridge, CMAldridgePhotography

A REVIEW BY RIVER STYX

Spotlighters consistently presents solid small theater productions, and its Season 54 opener A Sensation Novel doesn’t disappoint. It’s silly and entertaining and doesn’t try to be anything more. Spotlighters proudly announces this production is the American premiere of the 1871 comic opera by W.S. Gilbert, of the Savoy Opera duo Gilbert and Sullivan whose smash hits HMS Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance are still well loved by high schools and community theaters. In 7th grade I was actually in my high school’s production of HMS Pinafore as a “sister/cousin/aunt” (aka “hookers,” according to my director).

The prolific Gilbert, who wrote more than 75 plays, libretti and poems, wrote A Sensation Novel when he was churning out opera burlesques to supplement his income as a fledgling barrister and militia member, and right before meeting future writing partner Sir. Arthur Sullivan. The play is a parody of then popular sensation novels. It was the “Scary Movie” of the time, and Gilbert was the Wayans brothers (minus that jackass Damon). While 21st century audiences get the gags that poke fun at ’90s teen horror movies, they probably won’t appreciate references to Victorian era popular culture. So the puns littering A Sensation Novel are mostly lost, unless you’ve researched late 19th century popular British literature, which, not to brag, I did via The Sensation Novel’s Wikipedia page on which Gilbert’s parody gets a shout-out.

A Sensation Novel stars five stock characters whose day jobs are living out the novel’s plots. But they get to be their true non-tropey selves in the author’s parlor for one hour on the night each of the three volumes is completed. The “yellow-haired panther” Lady Rockalda (Evangeline Ridgaway) is really a middle-aged motherly widow who laments all the evil she’s done and has yet to do. Virtuous governess Alice Grey (Autumn Boyle) outside the novel loathes her missionary boyfriend, Herbert (Connor Moore), and lusts for apathetic villain Sir Ruthven Glenaloon (Jim Knost). And then bumbling Detective Gripper (Brian Kraszewski) pops in and out in various culturally appropriated costumes. Eventually the characters throw a fit and demand changes to make their characters happier be made by the author (also Knost), who pretty easily acquiesces. You don’t want to be a woman? You want to get it on with the guy who tried to kidnap you? And you want to partner up with the missionary and stop murdering people? Sure. Why not? And then they all sing.

The original songs that accompany A Sensation Novel were lost, but in the ’90s British composer and Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiast Michael Nash composed a score he suspected was close to what Gilbert had originally intended. His is the music accompanying Spotlighters’ production. Word has it that Nash is traveling to Baltimore next weekend to see this American premiere. The songs are pleasant and all kind of sound the same, but the five actors sing them well. Standouts are Ridgaway and Boyle, whose duet is one of the musical highlights of the show. Another highlight is a song-and-dance number by Moore. Ridgaway as the murderess with a heart of gold and Boyle as the lusty governess not only have voices that slay, each is an utter delight, bringing charm and smart comic timing to their characters. I appreciated the lightly veiled threat from the governess as she thrust a knife in my direction and looked right into my eyes as she sang that she would kill “any critic” who had anything bad to say about the marriages between characters (maybe also about the production?). Ballsy, or shall I say boobsy?

Speaking of boobs, Ridgaway’s are gloriously on display in a pirate wench get up, one of the many appropriate costume choices by Spotlighters head honcho Fuzz Roark, who also designed the production’s lighting. Spotlighters set design regular Alan Zemla has once again created a gorgeous set for the quaint below-ground theater-in-the-round. The stage is painted to resemble a shiny wood floor, and a giant leather-looking book cover serves as the entrance for the stock characters, a clever blocking choice by director Michael Blum, whose direction is engaging with enough space for the characters to elicit well deserved laughs.

Kraszewski’s Spirit of Romance and Detective Gripper is appropriately feminine, with a high-pitched voice and long fingers that play the air like a harp. A sex change is planned for his character, but he disappointingly opts of becoming a woman. I guess there weren’t a lot of Caitlyn Jenner types inspiring transgender characters during the late 1800s. Moore and Knost provide solid supporting performances, although I wish Knost had had more fun contrasting his Author and Sir Ruthven Glenaloon characters.

The show is split into three short acts, representing each volume of the novel, and goes by quickly. Patrons are in and out in under two hours, including two intermissions.

Bottom line: A Sensation Novel is cheesy fun and an entertaining way to spend two hours. A thoughtful, gorgeous set; standout performances by Evangeline Ridgaway and Autumn Boyle; and a clever, albeit less culturally relevant, story come together for a solid opening show of Spotlighters 54th season.

Running at http://www.spotlighters.org until October 4th

SECOND OPINION?

‘A Sensation Novel’ at Spotlighters Theatre

Contact Styx at:  riverstyxemail@gmail.com.

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