by Joy Donovan
John Wilkerson takes his bow, a deep Japanese bow, as Artisan Center Theater’s new artistic director by successfully bringing “The Mikado” to the Hurst theater for a multi-week run.
Wilkerson has assembled a talented lineup of actors to play an array of Japanese parts in this famed musical operetta written by Gilbert and Sullivan. Set in the town of Titipu, “The Mikado” features characters with such fanciful names as Yum-Yum, Ko-Ko and Peep-Bo.
“The Mikado” centers on Nanki-Poo, a young man who has banished himself from the town of Titipu. Nanki-Poo has fallen in love with Yum-Yum, a beautiful young lady unfortunately engaged to be married to her guardian, the tailor Ko-Ko. The plot twists and turns through circumstances that could only happen in a town where flirting is considered a capital crime.
Stealing the show is Brian Hales, who deftly plays Ko-Ko as a breathless buffoon in the mold of the late comedian Red Skelton. Artisan Center Theater’s production is double cast, but every audience will be treated to Hales’ droll wit since he takes the part for both casts.
Also a bright spot was Gary Payne in the role of Pooh-Bah. For a character who defends his personality with the line “I can’t help it; I was born sneering,” Payne is appropriately and amusingly haughty. Other standouts were the strong-voiced Brad Stephens as Nanki-Poo, the soprano Lauren Morgan as Yum-Yum and the droll Jonathan Kennedy as The Mikado.
In addition to the comedy that borders on a delightful silliness, highlights included musical numbers, especially the very feminine “Three Little Maids From School are We,” featuring the trio of Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo and Pitti-Sing, and the amusing “I am So Proud,” spotlighting a humorous male quartet. The two-act operetta features dozens of songs, so casting requires strong vocalists to carry the show. For the most part this worked well, but occasionally voices were overwhelmed by the musical accompaniment, and that musical track presented some distracting technical problems.
Costumes featuring kimonos, kabuki-style makeup, Asian wigs and pretty parisols help transport the story to another time and place. The set features Asian images, too, surrounding the Artisan’s theater-in-the-round with this foreign culture.
“The Mikado” is an old, old tale. The show premiered in March of 1885 in London, and it opened later that same year same year in New York. But the humor stands up well, even more than 100 years later. Artisan Center Theater’s current production, continuing through Oct. 10, will bring a smile to your face, and that’s worth a Japanese bow or two.