Theater Review: The Mikado
by Clyde Berry of John Garcia’s The Column
Having been out of town all summer, I was excited to return to the Metroplex for a brief period where I was able to review Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in Denton. I was equally excited to be able to return to the Artisan Theater Center in Hurst. Sadly, I was not back in time to be able to see what I heard was a very good West Side Story. So it was with delight that I requested to review their The Mikado.
I admire Artisan for their company’s mission principles, and do think they are successful in producing an incredibly full season of programming for both adults and kids, of both musicals and straight plays. After all, there I was, sitting in a space that a week earlier had been a completely different production. That sort of turnaround is not easy. I also rarely see empty seats at Artisan when I go there.
While I’m not convinced that their double casting really works, I do appreciate the fact they’re doing it offers opportunities to a great deal more folks to be involved on stage, which I do like. I’m also not a fan of scrubbing a script for content, but am very cognizant that you have to grow your target audience and not offend them with content that is not the family friendly programming you guarantee that you have.
That’s why The Mikado is an excellent choice of show for Artisan. This operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan is a delightful tale full of witty banter and lovely singing. There is no content that is offensive, and there are lots of great messages to be found. The Mikado was written to satirize English politics and manners. By setting their tale in Japan, the authors made it safe to poke fun at their own society without offending. You’ll also recognize many of the tunes, such as “Three Little Maids,” “Tit-willow,” and “A Wand’ring Minstrel I.”
In Mikado, Nanki-Poo, the heir to the throne of Japan, has fled the royal court and an arranged marriage. He ends up in Titipu where he falls in love with Yum-Yum, who is already engaged to Ko-Ko. Ko-Ko is the town executioner, also condemned himself to be executed for flirting. Unable to kill himself first, he cannot execute anyone else, therefore keeping the town safe. When Ko-Ko receives word from the Emperor that he must carry out an execution, or the town is doomed, complications emerge. Who will get executed? Will Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum get together?
This is a beautifully designed production! The entire space has been lovingly covered in murals by Michelle McElree and Lilly Strapp. Their color pallet and images are quite striking and do well to set the scene and generate excitement about where we will be transported to in the story. Jennifer Cadenhead, Nita Cadenhead, and Ryan Smith have the daunting task of creating numerous elaborate Japanese period costumes, which they successfully accomplish. Each performer looks wonderful in their outfit, and the choices of color and character touches are entirely appropriate and fun. No one seems to have received the bad or leftover pieces, a testament to a thorough design.
Ryan Smith’s hair and make-up designs are well researched, period appropriate, and quite delightful. I’m sure his wigs have to serve multiple performers, no easy design task. His make up design, as fun as it is, could use a supervisor on sight, as there was not uniformity in its execution amongst the cast members.
John Wilkerson and Jason Levya’s set and light designs are simple and fun. The Artisan challenge is, as always, staging in the round. This is never easy, and these gentlemen have put together an effective design that should serve the production well. There are two buildings in corners, a lovely garden bridge in another, and a simple circular platform unit at center. This unit also works when it was used as a revolver a few times within the show.
As to the execution of the story, I was disappointed. While I am not a fan of musicals done to tracks, I understand the inability to afford a pit. I don’t understand the lack of a musical director for an operetta. One was neither listed in the program, website, nor acknowledged as being overlooked in the curtain and intermission speeches. Almost every song had difficulty, mostly with performers missing the first line of a song and coming in late. Diction was also inconsistent. There were also several instances where folks were ahead or behind the track, or forgot lyrics altogether. That is not to say there were not good vocal performances in the piece, but a great deal of cleanup, would really help sharpen things.
A decision could also have been made for folks to either affect British accents or not, since there’s a mix of British and Texas accents.
There were questions I had about John Wilkerson’s direction. The overall production struck me as an opportunity to show off “bits.” We move throughout the evening from bit to bit at the sake of the overall story. In fact, during the intermission raffle, the staff person running the raffle spent a great deal of time bantering with the young raffle ticket puller about how it took him numerous times to figure out what the story is, and that he still wasn’t sure. (Joking or not, I’m not sure I’d want the audience to think about that too much.)
These bits often interrupt songs, bringing them to a grinding halt for a moment of shtick. Any sense of pacing is lost for the sake of these bits, which more often than not, are not successfully pulled off. The best example of this was the audience participation madrigal in Act II. Three volunteers were brought out of the audience to sing. No one readily volunteered to go, and those that did couldn’t read the music and did not know the song. So we awkwardly watch them stand and politely smile until the number is over.
The overall pace of the show is just slow enough to prevent laughs from the witty back and forth in the dialog, and many scripted jokes are lost, or not set up properly because of inserted material. Odd that for a show that has so much inserted into it, I was surprised that no significant changes were made to “As Some Day It May Happen” the “list song,” especially with the current political craziness. Then again, the style of presentation had little to do with making this a mock play of manners, which again, was the author’s intent.
For example a line about “The Japanese don’t use pocket handkerchiefs!” is said after several cast members have been using them to blot their faces, and someone is holding one at that exact moment. The cast, however, is able to move along without problems. They jump in and out of the songs as best they can, not letting frustration show for late vocal entrances or synching problems. They execute the bits they are staged to do, and could pull off many more of them, getting the laughs they are shooting for, by speeding up. People seem to be enjoying themselves and having a good time.
While there was no men’s chorus (two men does not a chorus make), several leads sing the opening number “If You Want to Know Who We Are.” Why not have the double cast male leads serve as chorus on their non-lead nights? The ladies of the women’s chorus are quite good at being enthusiastic and attentive. They move through their repetitive blocking (there was no choreographer) energetically and their “Comes a Train of Little Ladies” was one of the best numbers in Act I. They also do well reacting to the events around them in the end of each act.
For a production that was severely short of men, I was curious as to why the character of Pish-Tush was split into two roles: Pish and Tush. The men were neither “twins,” nor spoke in unison, thought they did split lines occasionally in quick succession. Bob Beck as Pish and David Priddy as Tush go above the call of duty filling in chorus singing and completing business that a gentleman like Pish-Tush would never do in other productions. Their pitching in gives them a lot more to do in this show, and they do it well.
As the Mikado, Jonathan Kennedy leers and sneers as he should. Chelsea Duncan’s Katisha is well matched to Kennedy, however it would have been more fun to see more of the rivalry between their two characters, especially during their joint entrance. Duncan sounds nice, and is well prepared for her solos.
Playing two of the three maids are Amira Sharif as Pitti-Sing and Arlette Morgan as Peep-Bo. These ladies are bright and work nicely as a group with Yum-Yum. They have some cute moments teasing Pooh-Bah and the other men.
On my evening Bill Sizemore played the officious Pooh-Bah. Sizemore is well cast in this role and has created a nice all around performance. His low voice was fun to listen to, and he is solid as the snob. He has some challenging dialogue, rolling off all his titles, and this will likely become a scene stealing moment by the end of the run.
Playing the lovers Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum are Craig Moody and Lauren Morgan. There is good chemistry between them, and they do well capturing their character’s youthful innocence. Morgan does a particularly fine job in her Act II solo “The Sun, Whose Rays Are All Ablaze,” bringing a nice moment of simple solid characterization.
Brian Hales plays Ko-Ko at every performance. His Ko-Ko is a lovable doddering goof. Hales is comfortable as the anchor in this production; and his standout moment in this production is the hilarious and desperate proposal of marriage to Katisha.
If you’re keeping a little list of shows to see at the end of your summer, The Mikado runs at the Artisan Center Theater through October 10.