Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review of Winter Opera's "The Mikado"

Katisha (Lindsey Anderson) fails to blow Nanki-Poo's (Isaiah Bell)
cover in the Act I finale of The Mikado
I have a friend who says he loves directing Shakespeare because it’s so easy to do. Just don’t get in the playwright’s way and you can’t lose. I think the same could be said of the better Gilbert and Sullivan operettas as well. Don’t mess with G&S and you’re golden.

Winter Opera’s Mikado (presented November 9 and 11 at the Skip Viragh Center on the Chaminade campus) does, unfortunately, mess with G&S from time to time. But the tinkering is infrequent enough and light enough to let the jolly good fun of Gilbert’s wit and Sullivan’s delightful score shine through. This wasn’t a great Mikado, but it was a very fine one. If you’re a dedicated Savoyard (like yours truly) I hope you didn’t miss it.

Let’s talk about the good stuff first. The cast was consistently strong, and some performances were downright outstanding. Mezzo Lindsey Anderson, for example, may be too pretty for Katisha (“a most unattractive old thing / With a caricature of a face”) but behind that stylized makeup you wouldn’t have known it, and she sang and acted the role beautifully. Granted, Katisha doesn’t do much, but it takes a good actress to make her (frankly) unnecessary Act II aria interesting. Ms. Anderson certainly did that. Soprano Kathleen Jasinskas was a comic charmer as Katisha’s nemesis, Yum-Yum, beloved of “wandering minstrel” and royal heir Nanki-Poo, sung with equal charm by tenor Isaiah Bell.

Baritone Lane Johnson had the Principal Comedian role of 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. He’s gotten rave reviews for previous performances of the part elsewhere, and it’s not hard to see why: a solid voice and impeccable comic timing. Bass-baritone Edward Hanlon was an engaging Pish-Tush, making this minor character more interesting than is sometimes the case. Director John Stephens (who also sang the role of the Mikado with great relish) gave him a little romantic subplot with Pitti-Sing (local mezzo Erin Haupt in another charmer of a performance). It wasn’t strictly Gilbertian, but it worked.

Baritone Gary Moss was presumably down at the bottom of his tessitura for in the bass role of the snobbish Poo-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else whose family pride is “something inconceivable”, but you’d not have known it from his singing. His performance involved a bit too much mugging and physical business for my taste—the big joke about Poo-Bah, after all, is his stolid pomposity—but it certainly went down well with the audience. It was also in sync with Mr. Stephens’s direction, which tended to bit too loaded with shtick at times, so I expect my real gripe was with him rather than Mr. Moss.

Then there’s the matter of the updated lyrics. It has been customary for many years now to replace Gilbert’s dated (and occasionally racist) topical jokes with contemporary equivalents, especially in Ko-Ko’s "As some day it may happen" and the Mikado’s "A more humane Mikado". Most of the revisions worked pretty well, with the Mikado’s song getting some especially clever revisions that left the bulk of the lyrics intact. There were a few too many political and sports jokes for me, but that’s just a matter of individual taste. They all went over well with the audience.

I also thought it was a shame that "See how the fates their gifts allot" got cut from Act II, but if you must cut something, that’s probably the best bet.

The chorus was smallish (eight men and eight women) but it sounded big, and elocution was good enough to make the projected English text unnecessary. The orchestra sounded impressive as well under conductor Michael Mishra, although his tempi were sometimes plodding. With smaller opera companies, the band sometimes suffers from anemic violins and sloppy winds, but there was none of that here. The fact that the Viragh Center has an actual orchestra pit also eliminated some of the balance problems you sometimes encounter in performance spaces that weren’t designed with musical theatre in mind.

In fact, the Viragh Center (on the Chaminade campus in Frontenac) might just be one of the best opera spaces in town. The stage is large and deep, sight lines are good, and the seating is comfortable. The move there has raised Winter Opera’s costs, but if they can manage to make this work they will be serious players on the local musical theatre scene.

The production looked as good as it sounded, with bright cartoonish sets from Scott Loebl, colorful Japanese costumes by JC Krajicek, and effective lighting by Sean Savoie.

So, while my rapture over this Mikado was somewhat modified, there’s no denying it was an entertaining piece of work and very welcome in a town that doesn’t see many Gilbert and Sullivan productions since Opera Theatre dropped their annual G&S show at the Edison Theatre many years ago. Winter Opera’s season continues with Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe (a work I haven’t seen in decades) in February and Puccini’s Tosca in March. There’s also a Holidays on the Hill program in December at Dominic’s Restaurant on (naturally) The Hill. For more information: winteroperastl.org.

Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic for 88.1 KDHX, where this review originally appeared.

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