Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Lyric Opera "Mikado" review by kellyluck

Lyric's Mikado Tries Too hard, Succeeds Anyway Rating: 3

The Mikado
Lyric Opera of Kansas City

For the closing of their second season at the Kauffman Center, the Lyric Opera has gone with a perennial favorite and Gilbert & Sullivan masterpiece The Mikado. This is a "fun" piece, as enjoyable to put on as it is to watch, and a good work to finish off a season with. Gilbert's tale is as timely and enjoyable as ever, and were it not for some baffling production decisions, this would be a capital presentation.

The story, of course, is nicely baroque, with the usual devices one expects in operetta: Wandering musician Nanki-Poo (Joshua Kohl, Ten) arrives in the town of Tittipu because he has heard that Ko-Ko (Robert Gibby Brand, Bar), the ward & husband-to-be of his adored Yum-Yum (Sarah Jane McMahon, Sopr), has been sentenced to death for flirting, thus clearing the field. Inquiries to village officials Pish-Tush (Chris Carr, Bar) and Pooh-Bah (David Kravitz, Bar) reveal that not only has Ko-Ko not been executed, but he has, by a byzantine bit of bureaucracy, been appointed Lord High Executioner for the town. What follows is sheer gleeful chaos as Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum try to get together, and Ko-Ko tries to keep them apart while finding someone to execute. When Nanki-Poo's old flame Katisha (Denyce Graves, Mez) brings the Mikado himself (Dale Travis, Bass-Bar) to town, the stakes--and the boiling oil--are raised to a fever pitch.

Musically, the performance is everything you could ask for. The principals and chorus were in fine voice throughout the opening night performance, and the orchestra under Mark Ferrell does right by Sullivan's score. Some moving of props and chorus stamping made for an occasionally muffled production, but thankfully these instances were few and far between. "See how the Fates their gifts allot" is omitted but these seems to be the general case these days. Of course it wouldn't be a proper Mikado without "As someday it may happen" and "A more humane Mikado" being brought up-to-date with a little topical humor; in this case they have more or less jettisoned the original lyrics in favor of their own, adding such low-hanging fruit as Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift to Ko-Ko's infamous "little list." A little broad, perhaps, but nothing to grit one's teeth over.

Unfortunately, that rather brings one to a major flaw in this production, namely the comedic approach taken. The cast and crew go to great lengths to present the material as comically as possible, but the fact is the really needn't have bothered. The Mikado does not require strenuous effort to make it funny; it is already funny. Or rather, it is witty. It is not wacky, or zany, or madcap tomfoolery, regardless of how much the Lyric company may desperately present it to be. In the program notes, William Theisen explains that his idea was to present the piece in the tradition of American Vaudeville. Now, blending comedic idioms is a risky business, and one prone to misfire. In this case the sly wit of the original material is utterly subsumed by the baggy-pants slapstick that has been thrust in on it at every conceivable occasion, much to the detriment of both. Ko-Ko flails and squeals across the stage attired like a rodeo clown and waving a ludicrous joke axe. The players slip into one "funny" accent after another. Comedy props abound. Even the more serious parts of the performance were not safe. "The sun, whose rays are all ablaze" is one of the most beautiful English-language arias I know. In all the years and renditions in which I have enjoyed it, I have never before heard people giggling. Even "Alone, and yet alive", which in better hands brings an edge of sympathy to the character of Katisha, is here wasted on more cheap gags. The subtext of "Brightly dawns our wedding day?" replaced by bad tea. Of course the audience lapped it up (so to speak), but that is only to be expected.

All right. So the comedy wasn't all bad. Elizabeth Tredent as Pitti-Sing and Etta Fung as Peep-Bo were more tempered in their roles, and indeed Carr's Pish-Tush was all one could hope for. Kohl was affably bland as Nanki-Poo, and Travis played his Mikado to the hilt. Ms Graves was in incredible voice as Katisha, but one can't help but feel her considerable talents are being wasted by the two-dimensional portrayal called for here. Some of the jokes were rather good--credit must be given for the rather clever callback to season opener "Madama Butterfly", for example. The (uncredited) choreography was quite good, even if it did tend to lean quite heavily on fan-snapping. R. Keith Brumley's set designs are quite a change from his remarkable "Flying Dutchman" efforts earlier this season. Based (we are told) on Japanese screens and scrolls, they are very bright and colorful. Very. In fact, toss in some giant letter blocks and a guy in a teddy bear suit and you've got yourself a ch!
ildren's show.

The Mikado is one of the most produced light operas in the world, if not the most produced, and with good reason. It is an excellent work: the result of two masters of their genre at the top of their game. To attempt to improve upon it is to dice with disaster. This has, as this reviewer has noted before, been a season of experimentation for the Lyric, and the thing about experiments is that they don't always succeed. Persons who like their comedy laid on with a trowel will no doubt enjoy this particular version. For the rest of us, who die a little inside each time one of the performers switches to a squeaky voice, or goes roller-skating across the stage: calm down. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, count to ten. Another song will be along in a moment. And just remind yourself: people who try to fix what is not in fact broken? We've got them on the list. We've got them on the list.

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