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Review - Three Pianos & The Mikado

No, that nice young man offering to pour you a glass of wine as you enter the New York Theatre Workshop's auditorium is not an intern or an Equity membership candidate earning weeks; it's one of the three madcap musicians who will be spending the next two hours trading punch lines, wheeling a trio of pianos around the stage and, somehow through it all, taking the inspiration for their antics from Franz Schubert's 1827 song cycle, Winterreise.

It's been my experience, at least during those bohemian post-college years, that classical musicians are among the rowdiest of late-night binging party animals, but I was unaware that this practice goes back at least as far as the gatherings known as Schubertiads, where the composer and his buddies would play their compositions, recite their poetry and have heated debates about the state of the arts while getting unceremoniously snockered.

Under the direction of Rachel Chavkin, who I imagine faced the same sort of challenges as whoever it was who directed The Ritz Brothers, writer/arranger/performers Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy offer a modern variation of that theme with Three Pianos.

With set designer Andreea Mincic's classic wintery view of a church and its graveyard in the background, the action is triggered by Rick and Alec's attempt to help mend Dave's newly broken heart via Schubert's setting of Wilhelm Müller's series of 24 poems telling the story of another broken-hearted lover.

Playgoers should not expect a complete or well-sung presentation of the song cycle. That's not the point. What matters more is the display of affectionate camaraderie as the wine-flowing festivities lead to pronouncements such as, "Schubert was all drunk and stoned when he was writing."

The boys are a charming trio and while the evening has its slower stretches, most of it is good fun. Just expect to leave the theatre knowing more about Schubert as "a guy" than as an artist.

Photos of Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy and Rick Burkhardt by Joan Marcus.


Less glitzy than The Rockettes and a lot funnier than Messiah, the annual winter performances by the New YorK Gilbert and Sullivan Players never fail to fill me with holiday cheer; especially when they're serving up that delicious old chestnut, The Mikado.

First performed in 1885, The Mikado remains one of the English language's funniest and most sumptuously musical theatre pieces. Inspired by the British fascination with Japanese style and culture in the late 1800's, it may be set in the fictitious town of Titipu in long-ago Japan, but it's clearly English manner and politics that W.S. Gilbert's libretto is spoofing. The story concerns a meek tailor named Ko-Ko who has been sentenced to be beheaded for the crime of flirting, but the people of Titipu decide instead to appoint him Lord High Executioner, figuring that since he's next in line to be executed, he can't cut off anyone else's head until he cuts his own off. Ko-Ko plans to marry his lovely ward Yum-Yum, but she's in love with the wandering minstrel named Nanki-Poo. When a dispatch from The Mikado of Japan advises that, since no one in Titipu has been executed for a year, somebody's head has to roll soon, otherwise... well, heads will roll.

Performed in the traditional D'Oyly Carte style, this is very much the same production the company has been offering for three and a half decades (stage and music direction by conductor, artistic director and set designer Albert Bergeret) and while I believe this to be my fourth visit to NYGASP's version of Titipu, the proceedings remain fresh, lively, humorous and energetically sung and played.

Though the company double-casts its roles, this was the third time I've been treated to seeing the immensely entertaining patter clown Stephen Quint as Ko-Ko. Nimble with quips and physical comedy, Quint conveys the loveable pathos of a very verbal Harpo Marx. Caitlin Burke makes for a non-traditionally youthful and attractive Katisha, Nanki-Poo's royally-intended bride. While the character is written to be "plain of face" her fierce Kabuki makeup and cat-like physicality give her a dangerous allure. Instead of offering, "beauty in the bellow of the blast," her powerful voice is wrapped in inviting textures.

David Wannen's smooth and rich bass gives the humor of the title role extra oomph and fine comical turns are also provided by Louis Dall'Ava, encased in an oversized fat suit as the enterprising Pooh-Bah, a smarmy Edward Prostak as nobleman Pish-Tush and Amy Maude Helfer, whose flirty Pitti-Sing is sung with an expressive mezzo. Cameron Smith sings with a charming glint as the juvenile Nanki-Poo and Sarah Smith's soprano is just lovely as his beloved Yum-Yum.

As is traditional with The Mikado, topical references are added to the mix, particularly with Ko-Ko's "little list" song pointing out potential heads for the executioner's block. Lyrics referencing Tea Partiers, Jersey Shore stars and the snowbound New York Sanitation Department received appreciative laughter, and with congress back in session this week, new lyrics might be available any day now.

Photo by Noah Strone.

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