Theater Review: “The Mikado”
Photo courtesy Virginia Opera
Ending their 2011-2012 season, Virginia Opera presents a five-star, two thumbs-up vaudevillian interpretation of “The Mikado,” under the slapstick direction of Dorothy Danner.
Performed in a Japanese garden—a delicate tree, looking as if it came out of a Japanese still life, shades the lotus pond and tea house with flowers in the shape of Japanese folding fans—Peter Dean Beck designs the idyllic setting with an ethereal touch, while Kenneth L. Steadman’s fragrant lighting bathes the landscape in purple and pink hues with splashes of green later in Act II when evil slips into Beck’s symbolic garden of Eden.
No, this isn’t “Memoirs of a Geisha,” instead Danner’s witty operetta with melodies by Arthur Sullivan and a libretto by W.S. Gilbert is a gleeful satire of Victorian England’s moralistic political establishment and obsessively class-conscious society.
Gilbert and Sullivan located the operetta in a Japanese context for two primary reasons. First, everything Japanese was the rage in England during the 1880s. (Everyone loves a geisha!) Second, placing it in a remote location, they felt they could criticize British society more openly. Directors have changed the exotic setting to other foreign lands—some even modernizing the piece—but Danner has smartly kept it in its original geography.
At the start of Act I a chorus of Japanese men shuffles in effeminately, eliciting lots of laughter and suggesting that the British of the 1880s thought foreign men were—well—somewhat gay. It’s a humorous entrance and a positive foreshadow to Danner’s remarkable interpretive strategy: she has placed the abundance of the operetta’s humor in the staging.
The truth is Gilbert and Sullivan’s humor is dry, as was a lot of British comedy from that era. (And is it PC to say still today?) Admittedly, perhaps there were sound issues on opening night because the dialogue was intermittently inaudible as was the singing, lightheartedly accompanied by the Richmond Symphony under the breezy direction of Gerald Steichen (in rotation with assistant conductor Adam Turner).
However, the humor isn’t lost but amplified by the witty mannerisms and tongue-in-cheek body language of this mirthful cast of Japanese townspeople and nobility.
And there’s a lot of humor in the fan play. Particularly uproarious is the scene where Katisha (a wickedly good Dorothy Byrne), Nanki-Poo’s fiancée, sings “Daughter-in-law elect.”
Speaking of the cast, this production marks the Virginia Opera mainstage debut of all the essential parts. Standout Kevin Burdette as Ko-Ko, the criminal (sentenced to death for the crime of flirting) turned into the Lord High Executioner, can barely lift his own axe but is a vaudeville act all to himself throughout the performance, rewriting his “I have a little list” with jibes at hipsters and the Kardashians.
Matthew Plenk is soft and loving as Nanki-Poo, while Katherine Jolly is nicely dismal, but flirtatious as Nanki-Poo’s love interest, Yum-Yum. Jeffrey Tucker as The Mikado asserts his sovereignty over Japan with the dimwitted humor of a child stuck in a big man’s body, while Aaron St. Clair Nicholson infuses Poo-Bah with a contemptuous, aristocratic profile and some funny bits about being Lord High Everything Else.
The costumes are infused with parody, too. Malabar Limited has provided the lush, but parodic Japanese attire. (For example, Katisha is nefariously dressed in a purple kimono embroidered with spider webs.) Adding to the fun, exaggerated style, even to the extent that Poo-Bah looks as if his face is in drag, James McGough’s wig and make-up design mixes traditional Japanese fashion with subtle European styles, giving the three little maidens European hairdos—pigtails and big pink bows—is girly and cute.
Even after three hours long, I could have stayed for another song. But while this operetta focuses in on the furtive, but blossoming romance between Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum, the punch line of the operetta is summed up in a lyric in the final number: “There are lots of good fish in the sea.” Even the concept of “The One” isn’t spared a jibe, or perhaps Gilbert and Sullivan were just a pair of musical, prickly bachelors. Sounds like many guys I know in modern-day New York.
“The Mikado” runs March 30 and April 1 at Richmond CenterStage. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.vaopera.org/
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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