BWW Review: Union Avenue Opera turns THE MIKADO 'Topsey Turvey'
A simply splendid production of The Mikado has opened at the Union Avenue Opera in St. Louis. This is certainly one of the finest--if not the finest--of the many beautiful productions I've enjoyed at Union Avenue over the past twenty-one years. Excellence pervades all aspects of the show-from beautiful voices and orchestra, to strong acting ability, to world-class comic talents; from its fine and detailed set to quite perfect period costumes and beautifully theatrical lighting. The production values in this Mikado are superb. Stage director Eric Gibson has done wonders in cleverly managing his large cast on this lovely set.
And-surprise, surprise!-this Mikado is set not in Japan but in a 1920's English gentlemen's club. Now far too often such transpositions amount to vandalization of our stage classics. But surprise, surprise again!: Here the concept works very, very well! In the film Topsey Turvey we saw Gilbert and Sullivan in 1885 struggling to create The Mikado. The period of the twenties is not quite that which we saw in the film but-especially in the gentlemen's club-the gestalt rings true. Advancing the time by forty years makes the appearance of lady guests in the club a bit more conceivable, and somehow the show's hearty mockery of English society has even greater lucidity when stripped of all the oriental exoticism.
In their satiric silliness Gilbert and Sullivan are really exercising their inner school-boy. It's as if all those Monty Python fellows were the pledge-sons of Gilbert and Sullivan in some elite English prep-school fraternity. And, after all, an English gentlemen's club is really just an old-boy extension of that school-boy culture. It fits Gilbert and Sullivan very nicely. Such masses of pre-adolescent humor! Such little-boy delight in making all those performers say the word "Titipu" a hundred times!
The luxurious gentlemen's club created by scenic designer Jeff Behm is elegant and beautifully detailed with oak paneling, a gracious chandelier, and lovely Japanese paintings which seem quite comfortable there. In the first several songs there is a suggestion of a "containing story" as the club members and their guests hold sheets of music, as if rehearsing for their own production of Gilbert and Sullivan's most successful comic opera. This charming little conceit is soon abandoned as the characters become their true G&S selves.
The story is complex silliness indeed: The Mikado, the ruler of everything, has made flirting a capital crime and poor Ko-Ko has been sentenced to decapitation. To circumvent this law the town of Titipu has made Ko-Ko their Lord High Executioner. Thus, they figure (in the spirit of first-come first-served) before Ko-Ko can execute anyone else he must first chop off his own head.
Ko-Ko is engaged to the beautiful Yum-Yum. But Nanki-Poo, the Mikado's son, is also in love with her. Disguised as a wandering minstrel (here a wandering second trombonist) he returns to Titipu. Complications and a great deal of laughter ensue.
The first twenty minutes or more is indeed a gentlemen's club, as we're treated to male solos, duets, trios, and a fine male chorus. Drake Dantzler as Nanki-poo sings a charming "Wand'ring Minstrel I" ; his lovely tenor voice is uniformly pure in tone throughout his range--even to those soaring high notes.
Baritone E. Scott Levin sings Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else. (He holds some dozen civic offices simultaneously.) Levin presents not only a rich and powerful voice with admirably clear diction, but also stunningly fine comic gifts. He distinguishes each of his various offices with unique vocal and physical characteristics. A time or two he emits a geyser of shrill gibberish that no human short of Mel Blanc could be expected to produce.
Baritone Andy Papas, who was so wonderful as the jester, Jack Point, in Winter Opera's Yeomen of the Guard last season, here brings comic delight to the role of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. Rotund but nimble he's brimming with physical comedy. And what a voice! A remarkable talent.