Bandits in the Valley opened yesterday at Todmorden Mills. It’s a site specific comic opera with words by Julie Tepperman and music by Benton Roark. The time is 1880. Sir George Taylor is the owner of the most productive paper mill in the British Empire but he wants more. Specifically he wants to convert the entire Don Valley to paper thus depriving the pesky bandits thereof of cover. He also wants Lily Pollard, the comely soprano lead of the travelling company he has engaged to stage The Pirates of Penzance as part of the mill’s 25th anniversary celebrations. He’s not the only one after Lily. She’s also the target of the female head of the troupe, Henri, and of Jeremiah, the bandit chief who is trying to obtain his inheritance. He in turn is pursued by the house maid (and his cousin) Birgitta and, in a purely brotherly way of course, another bandit, Freddy. In proper comic opera fashion a birthmark, naturally enough on Jeremiah’s buttock, is involved. Mayhem ensues.
Michael Mori has staged the piece in a number of different indoor and outdoor locations around the Todmorden Mills site with the audience split into two groups to catch parts of the show in a different order before reuniting in the theatre itself. Some of the spaces are tight and, as ever, the audience is harder to move than one might hope! Still, logistically it did come together. The piece itself is well crafted if a bit predictable. It’s mostly in rhyming couplets with groan worthy rhymes and puns (thesbians feature a lot) and some decent G&S parody elements. The music is essentially straightforward and tonal leaning to ballads and parlour song. It makes sense. It’s period appropriate and most of the time the singers are accompanying themselves on a variety of instruments.
Tapestry has assembled a remarkably strong cast for something of this nature. Alex Dobson heads it up as Sir George with appropriately arch acting and his very fine, firm baritone (occasionally rising to a strangulated falsetto in best G&S style). Of his recorder playing let us not speak. Keith Klassen is Jeremiah. Besides his usual accurate tenor and fine comedic skills, here he gets to strut (or strum) his stuff on the guitar. It’s better than Dobson’s recorder playing. The instrumental star is Jacques Arsenault as Freddy. He’s a really good accordion player and is critical to the scenes where piano is not available. Nice voice too.
The ladies are headed up by Jennifer Taverner as Lily Pollard. I’ve said before that she’s just about the ideal operetta soubrette and here she’s pretty ideal as a meta operetta soubrette. (Damn, Tepperman is contagious). She is about the only character who gets to show off vocally and she does it very well. Sara Schabas, as the androgynous Henri, manages an ertrejus Frernch agzent as well as displaying previously hidden chops on the piano and even the recorder. Stephanie Tritchew rounds things out as Birgitta. Her pursuit of Jeremiah is very funny and the music suits her rich mezzo. She also gets to do percussiony things with drums, cymbal and spoons, yes spoons.
The show lasts about an hour and it’s great fun and it’s free! Tickets are required though and I think at this point all performances are sold out but check with Tapestry for returns and rushes. The show runs weekend afternoons (multiple performances) in September.
As a commentator on a previous post noted free opera is a good thing. So, I think, are productions that showcase some of the more interesting performance spaces in the city. This one is a neat idea executed well.
Photo credits: Dahlia Katz