|Rebecca Hargrove, David Wannen, John Charles McLaughlin, Sarah Caldwell Smith, David Auxier, David Macaluso, Cáitlin Burke, Matthew Wages, and Amy Maude Helfer
Delighting audiences since 1885, W.S.Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's comic operetta The Mikado has been brought up to speed by an inventive framing device. Possibly borrowing a page from Mike Leigh's 1999 film Topsy Turvy, the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players' Director and Choreographer David Auxier-Loyola has written a prologue hinting at how G&S came up with the idea for The Mikado. In this prologue, he himself portrayed the dour Gilbert with David Macaluso taking the role of the genial Sullivan.
At an impasse, their producer Richard D'Oyly Carte opens a trunk of mementos redolent of the Victorian obsession with japonaiserie. Meanwhile, members of the D'Oyly Carte Company invade the space with their varied complaints. Making a big splash was the powerfully voiced Cáitlin Burke who would play Katisha, the "daughter-in-law elect" of the Mikado. We had the same thrill of recognition that we experienced seeing the film, as words were tossed about that would make their way into the operetta.
The device added a great deal to our appreciation although it did make for a long evening. Yet we were never bored and the three hours sped by. We have nothing but good things to say about the cast, the orchestra conducted by Joseph Rubin, and the production values.
Why has this operetta endured since Victorian days? One had only to look around the Kaye Playhouse to see heads wagging in time with the music and arms subtly waving back and forth; one had only to listen to the crowd emerging at the end humming the tunes. Good music will do that! Furthermore, Gilbert's lyrics are not only hilarious and clever but responsive to the rhythms of the English language in a way that very few lyricists have managed to achieve.
The more you hear Sullivan's music the more you appreciate it. Last night we were particularly taken with his complex writing for ensembles, particularly in the madrigal "Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day".
We also enjoyed the contemporary updating of "I've Got a Little List", sung by Ko-Ko, the tailor who has been given the role of Lord High Executioner. Similarly we got a big kick out of "Let the Punishment Fit the Crime" sung by the Mikado himself. These are not the actual titles of the songs but rather how they are commonly known.
Nanki-Poo, son of the Mikado in the disguise of "A Wand'ring Minstrel" was sung by the sweet voiced tenor John Charles McLaughlin who gave a sympathetic and engaging performance.
His self-absorbed beloved Yum-Yum was adorably realized by the superb soprano Sarah Caldwell Smith who is well known to us from the Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live. "The Sun, Whose Rays are All Ablaze" was beautifully rendered.
Impressing us with his comic chops was David Macaluso who kept the audience in stitches with his physical humor, accompanied by generous facial expressiveness. In the prologue, he portrayed Arthur Sullivan.
Matthew Wages, who is well known to us from several performances with Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live, made a very humorous Pooh-Bah adopting different expressions, different vocal colors, and different gestures for each of his many occupations, from solicitor to Chancellor of the Exchequer to Bishop of Titipu.
David Wannen made a regal Mikado and clearly enunciated all of the miscreants of society on his list--and the appropriate punishments for each. We wondered whether the updatings were written by Mr. Auxier who portrayed Mr. Gilbert in the Prologue and Pish-Tush in the operetta itself.
We enjoyed Amy Maude Helfer as Pitti-Sing as much as we enjoyed her recent performance as Ruth in Utopia Opera's Pirates of Penzance. She has a great flair for G&S.
Almost stealing the show as the vengeful Katisha was the sonorous voice of Cáitlin Burke. Her final scene with Ko-Ko was a marvel of actors working off one another. He cannot stand her but must marry her so that Nanki-Poo can wed Yum-Yum. He serenades her with "Willow, Tit-Willow" so successfully that her rage melts and she becomes an almost-nice person.
Adding to the success of this production is a wonderful set by Anshuman Bhatia. A railway station stage left bearing the sign"Town of Titipu" and a tailor shop stage right appear before a painted backdrop looking a bit like a Japanese woodcut of mountains. A few branches of flowering trees and a bench provide a place for wooing.
Benjamin Weill's lighting was exemplary. When Yum-Yum sings about the sun's glory, the stage is warmly lit with golden tones. When she comes to the verse about the moon, the lighting becomes dark and tinged with cool blues.
Quinto Ott's costumes were colorful and playful. The women's Victorian gowns revealed the armature underneath that served to create the shape that was popular in that era. Those of the Mikado and Pooh-Bah were appropriately over embellished.
Much work had been done to appease the Asian community's objections and the production managed to be politically correct whilst holding to the intent of the piece. We have no idea what the cast wore in 1865 but this reminder that the work is about Victorian England and not about Japan made it seem just right.
Victorians needed to see their hypocrisies, bureaucracies, sexual repression, and political chicaneries exposed and ridiculed. Perhaps today we need a work that ridicules political correctness! But where could we find another Gilbert and Sullivan?
© meche kroop