(photo by David Allen)
The Mikado is one of the best loved and most enduring pieces of musical theater, delighting audiences since its premiere in 1885. The words of W.S. Gilbert and the music of Arthur Sullivan are as fresh, entertaining and topical as the day they were written. The new production from the Lamplighters clearly demonstrates why this is so. The audience at Saturday’s matinee at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts was a mixture of young and old as well as aficionados and neophytes, all of whom were delighted and thrilled by the fast paced spectacle. The Lamplighters always perform to the highest musical and dramatic standards, and this performance took them to an even higher level.
Titled “The New Mikado,” the setting has been moved from Japan to Renaissance Italy. The operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, like Shakespeare, are often adapted to new locales, times and sensibilities. These “high concept” productions, when done thoughtfully, can give a fresh perspective and new insights into familiar material. Stage director Ellen Brooks, artistic director Rick Williams, music director Baker Peeples and artistic director emeritus Barbara Heroux have done an amazing job of coming up with a concept that helps focus the themes and humor of “The Mikado” while never detracting from them.
Remarkably little rewriting was necessary, much to the relief of those of us who have memorized every word. “Japan” becomes “Milan,” while “Titipu” becomes “Tir’misu,” a particularly clever change that is completely within the Gilbertian aesthetic. The character of the “Mikado” becomes “il Ducato,” and most of the other names are Italianizations of the originals.
Ms. Brooks drew upon her background in commedia dell’arte to insert a few of the stock characters into this production. The zanni, clever servants who often know more than the principals, were miming commentary in the spirit of a Greek chorus in many of the scenes. Dressed in the traditional white baggy costumes, Ashley Myers and Nicholas Dahlman executed these difficult roles with aplomb and were a sheer delight to watch. Poobà (Pooh-Bah), Lord High Everything Else, was dressed in bright, bold colors as a Harlequin, befitting his role in providing laugh line after laugh line. Charles Martin made the part come to life with his comedic flair and rich baritone voice, and he was a crowd favorite.
Coco (Ko-Ko) was played by veteran Lamplighter F. Lawrence Ewing. It is hard to imagine a better interpretation. His timing and deep understanding of the text brought out the humanity and universality of this common man who is attempting to deal with situations that are beyond his control. On top of that, he has a lovely singing voice and uses it well. This allowed the emotionality of his lyric solo “Tit willow” to come to the forefront and not be overwhelmed by the comedy of it. His first big number, “I’ve got a little list,” was completely rewritten for the second and third verses. This is a long standing tradition for this song to keep it being topical, and was even sanctioned to a certain extent by Gilbert in his day. I don’t know who was responsible for the updated verses, but they were absolutely brilliant. There were references to Prius drivers, people who announce they are vegan and gluten free as you bring out your Beef Wellington, people who “Feel the Bern,” and of course, “the ego with the hair.”
The star crossed lovers Niccolù (Nanki-Poo) and Amiam (Yum-Yum) were played by newcomer Patrick Hagen and Erin O’Meally. Hagen has a clear, bright tenor voice that fills the hall which served him well in the chestnuts “A wand’ring minstrel, I” and “The flowers that bloom in the spring.” O’Meally’s lyric soprano was a perfect match, which made their duet “Were you not to Coco plighted” work extremely well. Their acting ability came to the foreground in this number as well, as their timing and chemistry during the stolen kisses that punctuate the song was the best I have seen. Again, the humanity of the characters kept the humor of the situation in check.
Amiam’s sisters Pippa (Peep-Bo) and Pizzi (Pitti-Sing) made up the other two thirds of the “Three little maids from school.” Allison Spencer and Elana Cowen had voices that blended perfectly with O’Meally, and the performance was perfection. Cowen, as the soubrette, also demonstrated a fine comic performance throughout, especially in “The criminal cried” and the surrounding scenes.
Another newcomer, Michael Orlinsky, played Piccia Tuccia (Pish-Tush). Even though it is a fairly small role, it is an important one as it sets the stage by providing the backstory at the beginning of the show. “Our great Ducato, virtuous man” explains the nobles make Coco the Lord High Executioner in an effort to continue their lifestyle of flirting without fear of being subjected to the laws against it. Orlinsky was able to make every word understood with strong yet mellow baritone voice.
The two remaining principals, Catiscià (Katisha) and the Il Ducato (the Mikado) were equally strong. Anne Hubble, who played the infamous “daughter-in-law elect” performed with the Lamplighters first in the 1980’s before going off to great glory as a dramatic soprano. She had a commanding stage presence, and really was able to turn the caricature of the silly harridan into a genuinely sympathetic character. Ben Brady as the title character had a full, rich voice that allowed us to hear every word in his exposition on how “to let the punishment fit the crime.” He was able to make the sometimes demonic laugh in that song sound very natural while being a little scary. The interaction between the Ducato and Catiscià as she keeps cutting him off in their entrance number was superb.
The most striking thing about this production was how exquisite all of the ensembles were. We are used to Lamplighters having a highly skilled chorus, both musically and dramatically. However, sometimes duets, trios, quartets and quintets can come off more like a string quartet (individual voices emphasized) than a viol consort (where there is a uniformity of sound). All of the small group performances were remarkable for their blend, rhythmic integrity, intonation and unity of vision. All of the named principals participated in at least one of these. The most sublime moment of the production was the end of the wedding madrigal (“Brightly dawns our wedding day.”) It is mostly a cappella, and the pianissimo that O’Meally, Hagen, Orlinsky and Cowen achieved while maintaining pitch, tone and blend was transformative. It literally brought me to tears.
Music director Baker Peeples exceeded himself. In addition to the vocal performances, the orchestra was in peak form. I did not notice a single glitch. If you have never heard Sullivan’s orchestrations, you are doing yourself a disservice. The man knew his instruments and how to use them.
One more comment on the quality of the rewriting. There is one line at the end of the first act finale which is used to interrupt Catiscià to keep her from outing Niccolù as being the disguised son of il Ducato. In the original, it is simply an outburst in silly Japanese. In this version, the artistic staff used the Latin phrase “Amor vincit omnia” instead. “Love conquers all.” Brilliant.
There are still many opportunities to see this production, which runs through August 28. You won’t be sorry.