Sunday, May 20, 2007

Modified Rapture

[This is my review of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of The Mikado for KDHX-FM]

Stage Director Ned Canty sets the tone for Opera Theatre's Mikado during the overture. An actress in traditional Japanese garb slowly glides onstage, sets a miniature pagoda on the floor and glides discreetly off. As the overture ends an actor in a Godzilla outfit prances out and, simultaneously with the final chord, stomps the model flat. The combination of 19th and 20th-century Western images of Japan and well-timed physical comedy tells you most of what you need to know about this generally delightful updating of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic.

“This production”, according to Canty's director's notes, “seeks to capture the kinetic soup of pop-culture cross-pollination that has been whizzing between East and West for the past century and a half”. That means that in this Mikado, the “gentlemen of Japan” who open Act I wear dark suits and carry cell phones as well as fans. They're accompanied by a Pokémon character, an equally cartoonish Sumo wrestler and, of course, Godzilla. Nanki-Poo, the “wand'ring minstrel”, is in Elvis drag and the “three little maids from school” are decked out in Sailor Moon outfits with Hello Kitty backpacks, punk accessories and Day-Glo hair. Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams' sets are either anime-style cityscapes with garish corporate logos or toy theatre gardens.

This sounds like it ought to be a hopeless mess, but it isn't. That's because The Mikado was never really about Japan, any more than H. M. S. Pinafore was really about the Royal Navy. Gilbert always used the setting to lampoon the same pompous, self-important targets. This production never loses sight of that fact and never (“well, hardly ever” as they say in Pinafore) allows The Concept to get in the way of a good joke. That's why it nearly always succeeds and why, when it does fail, the problem is not a matter of design so much as of execution.

Sorry about that.

The cast is generally quite strong, both dramatically and musically. Tenor Patrick Miller is a fine Nanki-Poo, adding just the right touch of Elvis (including a little vocal ornament a la “The King” at the end of “A wand'ring minstrel”) without over-doing the gag. He has a solid, ringing voice, which serves him well, but somewhat overwhelms the pretty but thin tone of Katherine Jolly's Yum-Yum in their duets. Her performance is dramatically flawless, but her inability to project as effectively as the rest of the cast makes her fade into the background when she should be “all effulgent”.

Baritone David Kravitz is a wonderfully lively Ko-Ko, the “cheap tailor” raised to the exulted post of Lord High Executioner despite the fact that he literally wouldn't hurt a fly. Bass Matt Boehler is appropriately pompous and effete as the snobbish Poo-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else whose family pride is “something inconceivable”. Bass-baritone Matthew Burns' dance and roller-skating moves make the relatively minor role of Pish-Tush more interesting that it usually is. All three are very strong vocally, making their Act I trio “I am so proud” with its rapid-fire final chorus (“To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock”) one of the highlights of the evening.

Mezzos Allison Tupay and Kirsten Forrest Leich are delightful as Yum-Yum's school chums Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo. Tupay, in particular, gets great comic mileage out of her part of the Act II trio in which she, Ko-Ko and Poo-Bah all describe, in increasingly absurd and self-congratulatory detail, the fictitious execution of Nanki-Poo.

Bass LeRoy Lehr and contralto Myrna Paris are less impressive as The Mikado and Katisha. Lehr's delivery is rather plodding and his voice gets a bit pinched at the top. Paris, meanwhile, seemed to be having something of an off night. When she's at the top of her game (as she was two years ago in Flight) she's a fine comic contralto. On opening night, unfortunately, she seemed a bit hoarse and sounded uncomfortable overall. Could the high pollen count have something to do with it? If so, I sympathize; I've been fighting it myself.

There are other minor problems as well, the most noticeable being the generally slow pace and an occasional tendency to drag out a joke or a sight gag just a bit too long. Pish-Tush on roller skates, for example, is funny the first few times; after that, it just adds to the running time. The Mikado is not a particularly long opera, so when a production clocks in at just under three hours it suggests that things could be brisker.

That said, Opera Theatre's Mikado is still jolly good fun on the whole. On opening night, conductor Joseph Illick (who alternates with Timothy Long during the run) did a fine job with the score. He and the singers got slightly out of synch now and then, but that will likely disappear as the production progresses. The chorus looked and sounded great, thanks to Costume Designer Linda Cho, Chorus Master Sandra Horst and English Diction Specialist Erie Mills. In short, while this may not be the best of all possible Mikados, it's certainly a solid one and, given the dearth of Gilbert and Sullivan locally, it's an opportunity the dedicated Savoyard won't want to pass up.

The rest of you will have to decide whether the ticket prices justify a production that's slightly less than first rate. I'd say it's worth it, but then I'm the sort of person who uses “A more human Mikado” as an audition piece and has the Gilbert and Sullivan Karaoke web site bookmarked.

The Mikado continues through June 23rd [2007] at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For performance times and ticket prices, call 314-961-0644 or visit the Opera Theatre web site at

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