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.
Ko-Ko sings of his famous "Little List" of all those irritating people whom he would lead to the chopping block. As usual the lyrics are updated with contemporary references. The uncredited author of these updates deserves very high praise. Often local references inserted in a show are really rather dumb, but these are at a truly Gilbertian level of wit; Stan Kronke, disruptive road repairs, the Loop Trolley, Brexit, and of course Trump, Hillary, Bernie and Obama all come under sharp fire.
Nicholas Ward sings the role of Pish-Tush, a noble lord. It's a role not so dripping with comic possibilities as Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah, but Ward, with ginger mutton-chops, does quite beautiful work with it.
And then the ladies! The wards of Ko-Ko (Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo) arrive with that tripping, light-hearted classic, "Three little maids from school are we". Yum-Yum is sung by the lovely Karina Brazas who fills her with grace and a generous scoop of vanity. Her moonlit solo in Act 2 is an ideal vehicle for her quite silvery voice. Yum-Yum's two friends are beautifully sung by two St. Louis favorites: Elise LaBarge and Gina Malone.
Now Nanki-Poo, before he fled the court, had unintentionally encouraged the affections of a very fearsome lady: Katisha. And Katisha has not forgiven her abandonment. She arrives in the very powerful person of mezzo Melissa Parks. Katisha is described as quite ugly--an attribute in which I found Ms. Parks lacking. But she makes this Katisha so devouringly fierce that any sane male would run for his life. And she wields a voice that is quite wonderfully powerful and expressive.
And finally the title character arrives--THE MIKADO! Bass-baritone Zachary James will make you swallow your gum! Visually alone he is stunning; Dressed in a snow-white uniform with a plumed pith-helmet he seems some eight feet tall. And his voice! It seems an order of magnitude larger than any other voice on stage. Wow! And in his gorgeous rendition of "Let the Punishment Fit the Crime" he prances and dances like a much smaller person, flinging his limitless legs with considerable abandon.
Fine precise work is done by the chorus and orchestra.
The overture in this near perfect production seemed a little slow in places, the acoustics made some circus-tempo patter songs a little difficult to follow, a wedding dress sagged just a bit, and I wondered why even more use was not made of the club's lovely balcony. But overall this Mikado was simply terrific!
My congratulations to Conductor Scott Schoonover, Scenic Designer Jeff Behm, Costumer Teresa Doggett, Lighting Designer Joseph Clapper and the whole cast and crew for this glorious production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado.
It plays at the Union Avenue Opera in St. Louis through July 16, 2016.
As an after-note: I was disappointed to learn that the production's charming shift in time and place was motivated, at least in part, by considerations of political correctness: There was the fear that the traditional presentation might offend Japanese sensibilities. I know that modern Americans have been trained to be so thin-skinned as to take offense wherever possible. But let's not encourage that. Let's not insult our audiences by assuming they have neither sense of humor nor ethnic confidence.
A few years ago I directed a revival of Abie's Irish Rose, though some of our board-members were sure that it's broad caricatures would offend our Jewish audiences. Those Jewish audiences, however, delightedly embraced the production and its gentle mockery of their quaint great grand-parents.
As to offense in The Mikado: In 1886 Japanese prince Komatsu Akihito saw a performance of The Mikado in London and he took no offense at all. In preparation for a 1907 state visit by another Japanese prince, Fushimi Sadanaru, the British Parliament banned productions of The Mikado for six weeks. The prince, however, complained that he'd been denied a chance to see The Mikado during his visit. A Japanese journalist saw a later performance and said he was "deeply and pleasingly disappointed." Expecting "real insults" to his country, he had found only "bright music and much fun."