The Mikado contains some of W.S. Gilbert’s wittiest, most clever lines, and some of Arthur Sullivan’s most operatic music. It’s one of the most popular, and most often performed, of the duo’s operettas, and it was the attraction Saturday night in a sly, witty, rambunctious production by the Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company. The GSVLOC, as their name would suggest, has specialized in G&S for almost 30 years, with one featured production a year (and occasional performances at the Lake Harriet Bandshell).
It’s hard to really know how to review a community production like this. It’s not as if the reader is going to use this as a guide on how to spend his entertainment dollars. For one thing, the production only runs through April 1. For another, you’d have to travel to Minneapolis to see it. (It’s sold out anyway, in case you were interested, but there’s always standby).
However, assuming all that, there’s a lot to talk about with this production, the strongest we’ve seen from GSVLOC in several years.
First of all, a word about last year. You may recall that we had some problems with a director who seemed utterly committed to imprinting her chromosomes on a political interpretation of a contemporary political interpretation of Princess Ida, even (or especially) where none existed. But where we criticize, we also give credit when it’s due; and this year, happily, there was no such problem. In fact, Joseph Andrews, the director of this production, even expressed his own reservations about gimmicky stagings of classic productions. But how to keep it fresh? The end result, as Andrews put it, was to “remain true to the magic and merriment of the original production, but also offer the slightest hint of newness to the production for you, our loyal audience.” Considering what we’ve experienced over the years, this could have been a cause for some discreet concern, but Andrews was true to his word. The innovations were slight, consisting mostly of a play-within-a-play format, in reality the guise for a tribute to Warren Loud, the oldest member of the GSVLOC and a veteran of many a production, now confined to a wheelchair.
The show opened with a brief introductory piece, the story of an old man (Loud) preparing to move from his home, while the movers and his family bustled about. The movers were, of course, meant to suggest various characters in the operetta, while his three granddaughters were, naturally, the three young girls and the shrewish daughter turned out to be Katisha, the shrewish – well, more about that later. To pass the time, one of the girls (later seen as Yum Yum) puts on the record player a recording of one of the Old Man’s favorite pieces, The Mikado, and we hear a snippet of the actual recording of the overture, before the live orchestra (well-conducted by Roderick Phipps-Kettlewell) takes over. This set piece closed with a charming montage of pictures of Loud’s life, leading into the beginning of the show. And a crowd-pleasing show it was.
The evening (as well as the story itself) belonged to Peter Hedlesky as Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. In a role that has been played by everyone from Tennessee Ernie Ford to Groucho Marx, Hedlesky pulled it off with a style that would have done Cyril Ritchard proud, a performance that managed at once to be arrogant, timid, mincing, sly, and altogether winning.
Since so much of the action swirls around Ko-Ko, it’s important for the success of the production to have someone who can pull it off. As the haughty government official, engaged to marry his ward Yum Yum, keeping her from her true love Nanki Poo, he should be the villain of the piece. Yet it’s obvious that Ko-Ko isn’t really bad – he’s an Executioner who can’t stomach the thought of killing anyone, a man who, when Nanki Poo boldly professes his love for Yum Yum, agrees – after all, it’s nice to have someone confirm his good taste! It is Ko-Ko to whom Gilbert has given many of the funniest lines, and if you don’t have an actor who can win the audience over, who can make them identify with instead of scorn him, those lines are going to fall flat. And he’s far too sympathetic to resent – even Nanki Poo, whom Ko-Ko has just sentenced to death (nothing personal you understand, just a legal arrangement) doesn’t hold it against him.
Ko-Ko’s partner in crime, as it were, is the impious Poo Bah, played with flair by John-Scott Moir. Poo Bah is every bit as arrogant as Ko-Ko should be, but masks it beneath a false humility of sorts, hilariously rationalizing his corruption by insisting that it offends his sensibilities and family honor to constantly have to wield power and accept bribes. Like Koko, his is bluster with no bite, a man who, in the all-too-familiar words of many a political operative, is “someone you can work with.”
Timothy James plays our hero, Nanki Poo, the lovelorn troubadour (second trombone) who in reality is the son of the imperial king, the Mikado. Last year in Princess Ida we thought he was perhaps a little light as far as the voice, with a sound more suited to musical theater than operetta. We still think so, but he’s so winning in his portrayal, making you root for him even though you know he’s going to get the girl in the end. Then there is his beloved Yum Yum, played capably by Sarah Wind. Yum Yum is a little of everything – vain, insecure, selfish, giving, despairing, delighting. In other words, the mass of contradictions that is typical of so many young girls. (I don’t believe Gilbert ever goes into detail on how old Yum Yum is supposed to be, but I’d guess she couldn’t be much over 20, if that.) Wind seems to capture these mood swings with the just the right combination of seriousness and absurdity that makes the role work.
The rest of the cast does equally well, particularly Lara Trujillo as Katisha, the jilted woman who was engaged to Nanki Poo and then lost him (and after meeting her, you’ll have no trouble understanding why the guise of a traveling troubadour seemed a preferable alternative for Nanki Poo) and has now come looking for him. This could be a standard Wicked Witch-type role, but Trujillo seems to find the humanity buried beneath the surface. And then there’s Christopher Michela’s Mikado, and I would swear that he was channeling The Great Gildersleeve, with his rolling eyes, mustache, and voice inflections (if you’ve ever seen a clip of the old Jack Benny program where Jack encounters a floorwalker in a department store, you’ll know exactly what I mean).
This was a Mikado for pop culture sensibilities, as evidenced by the Act 2 PowerPoint presentation used to show the inverse relationship between executions and the well-being of the people. It was perhaps a little over the top, but all in good fun, so we’ll give it a pass. Also requiring passes were the snide little jabs at the current administration in Washington that were slipped into the libretto (jokes based on current events being a trademark of G&S performances). We didn’t really mind Bill Frist being included as one of the names in “I’ve Got a Little List” (after all, how could you pass up the chance to rhyme “Frist” and “List”?) but including those who believed in Weapons of Mass Destruction as members of that list (which is a list of people that the world could do without) seemed to be pushing things a bit much. And then there was the slide in the PowerPoint that purported to show the number of people injured in hunting accidents with the Vice President, along with a reminder to “thank Dick and Lynne.” Really, what is it that makes these artist types assume that their audience is comprised exclusively of liberals? (On the other hand, after looking at the bumper stickers in the parking lot after the performance, it’s hard to blame them for coming to that conclusion.)
But these amount to mere quibbles. At any rate, those who were in attendance were witness to an evening of fun performed with a reckless abandon. It was the best G&S we’d seen in quite a while. And we left the theater with a smile, which for your entertainment dollar is not a bad exchange at all.