Friday, September 28, 2012

Blue-state Mikado at the Lyric

Bob Jolly cuts up as the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado.  Photos: Mark S. Howard.
I've no doubt The Mikado will be a joy forever; and right now at the Lyric Stage, where Spiro Veloudos has once more shoehorned an epic into his intimate space, the Gilbert and Sullivan classic is indeed a joy - well, off and on.  Much of this production is wonderful - either beautifully sung, or hilarious; but unfortunately there are frustrating gaps on both the musical and comic counts that ultimately compromise its success.  I left glad that I'd once more visited this evergreen garden of silliness; but at the same time, I can't pretend it's in full bloom.

G&S purists, however, should have no fear - strange as that may sound, given that the Lyric cast is defiantly non-traditional, the score is oft streamlined, and Veloudos has updated almost all the jokes to the current election cycle (on the poster, Yum-Yum even sports an "Occupy Titipu!" button).  Still, somehow his production feels comfortably traditional, and roughly true to the spirit of D'Oyly Carte, despite all the jabs at Romney, Republicans, and other blue-state bête noires; somehow there's a deep consonance between Veloudos' sense of humor and the Victorians' humorous nonsense (and their faith in masculine prerogatives) that makes everything hang together.

And despite the paucity of Asians onstage, Japan seems no further removed from The Mikado in the Lyric version than it does generally (so the program's apology for the operetta's supposed insensitivities seems - well, a little beside the point by now).  I mean of course I bow, bow, not only to the Daughter-in-Law Elect but also to the Politically Correct - still The Mikado might as well be set in Oz, or Lilliput, rather than Titipu; its "Japan" is simply a fancified gloss on certain familiar districts along the Thames.

Or the Charles, I guess (the backdrop features a bald eagle flapping over Mt. Fuji, and we can just make out a Citgo sign down in Titipu).  At any rate, the point is that Democrats and independents need not fear this production; those partisans of Sullivan's music, however, may have a more divided opinion.  Alas, the score is presented in a highly reduced keyboards-woodwinds-and-percussion version, which is even further compromised for being piped in (somehow this kind of thing always works better when you can actually see the musicians, and at least hear their original acoustic).  Sigh.

Erica Spyres as Yum-Yum, with her famous little maids from school.
Meanwhile the vocals are all over the place - even if most of them are admittedly terrific.  The reliable Erica Spyres sings like a lark as Yum-Yum, and soars brilliantly through "The sun, whose rays are all ablaze" (probably the greatest theme Sullivan ever penned), while opera star David Kravitz likewise takes home vocal (and comic) laurels as the hilariously versatile Pooh-Bah.  Other local lights come through musically but for some reason are a bit at sea theatrically: the wonderful Leigh Barrett, for instance, misses the drollery of Katisha (she gets no help from her Asian-horror fright wig, perhaps the only visual misstep in the show), and Timothy John Smith deploys his booming baritone aptly as the Mikado, but seems to be going for some gonzo (perhaps ground-breaking?) interpretation that I just couldn't figure out.

Both the men's and women's choruses sounded great, too (and newcomer Teresa Winner Blume caught my eye as Pitti-Sing).  Davron S. Monroe, however, made a generally appealing and sweet Nanki-Poo, but was a bit strained vocally the night I attended, while as Ko-Ko, Titipu's harmless Lord High Executioner, Bob Jolly wobbled all over the place.  Now Ko-Ko's are often chosen for their comic timing rather than their musical chops - and Jolly usually has the right comic stuff up his sleeve in spades; but sometimes on this occasion he even seemed unable to hit his marks comically.  Maybe he was just having a bad night, but the performance kept moving frustratingly in and out of focus.

But can The Mikado survive a few bumps in performance?  Yes, it generally can, and the Lyric version does deliver many pleasures, not least among them Janie Howland's elegant set and Rafael Jaen's gorgeous costumes.  G&S fans who are voting a straight Democratic ticket have until October 13th to see it.

Leigh Barrett pines away as Katisha.


  1. Spot on - all of it!

    Though the players were excellent, the 'orchestra' sound was really disappointing. Better a version for piano, four hands with the players - as you say - visible, than this strange, tinny disembodied accompaniment. I understand that theaters without much space or money need to get creative , but it needs to better than this (these are not community theater prices)!

  2. Thanks, Michael. For the record, the Lyric has written to tell me that the musicians were not "piped in" - they were simply playing behind a screen. As the keyboards were electronic, however (and so their sound was coming out of the theatres' speakers), it was a little hard to tell they were actually present.

  3. The night I attended, which was early in the run (I think it was a preview, in fact) it was obvious that there were live musicians playing behind a screen when Bob Jolly missed a a few lines in the re-written "I've Got a Little List" and the band stopped, and started over again once he found his place. I suppose the confusion could have been avoided if there had been a way for the musicians to come out and take a bow.

    I'd also add that, unlike you, I quite enjoyed the costume (wig and all) that Leigh Barrett wore as Katisha-- indeed it was one of my favorite visual elements to the show.

  4. I didn't say there weren't live musicians. I said the music sounded "piped in." Which it did. Indeed, I've discussed this with several people now, all of whom were disappointed in the instrumentation and most of whom were under the impression the musicians were in some other part of the building (as is often the case now).

    The Katisha costume works if you feel that Katisha should be a vamp. But she's not, she's a dowager, like Buttercup in Pinafore and Ruth in Penzance. The New Rep made something like the same mistake in their Hot Mikado a few years back. My gut is that this is due to a kind of postfeminist horror of the dowager type. Which is too bad, because a dowager Katisha is a good deal funnier than a vamp.

  5. Fair enough. I'm not so versed on the G&S repertoire so this was my first encounter with the Mikado and so I don't have a nuanced sense of the lead characters.