Musical Theatre: The Mikado at Artisan Center Theater
Ah the lofty hi-jinks of Gilbert and Sullivan. The insouciant erudition. The crafty wink and tongue set firmly in cheek. Certainly these two brought comic opera to new heights, spoofing grandiosity and tortured melodrama. They had a flair for poking fun at the pompous and the precious, the vain and the quaint. Their genius lay in their ability to celebrate and yet deflate their subjects, all with a completely straight face, and all in good fun. Their operettas felt light, and yet something nudged them to realms beyond cleverness. Not that they ever lacked for wit. Perhaps it was the simple strategy that each character took themselves seriously, with gusto, even in the context of a world that makes them seem absurd.
A possible exception is the “Three Little Maids” from The Mikado who understand their role in society includes : “girlish glee” and the detachment of a line like : “Life is a joke that has just begun.” While they gamely understand that life is far too important to be taken at face value, they too, understand their function is key. Even if that function is to be wise and foolish (the definition of sophomoric). After admittedly seeing The Mikado for the first time, I wasn’t altogether sure that Japanese culture and Gilbert & Sullivan were a neat fit. To put it differently, you don’t always know where G & S are coming from (those sly boys) and they probably loved it that way.
It’s one thing to exploit the foibles of your own culture, quite another to risk condescension towards one that may seem (in some ways) inexplicable. I’m not suggesting xenophobia here, only that Gilbert & Sullivan’s habit of working up the eccentricities of a character or culture might not work as well here. Seems when you give your characters names like Nanki-Poo, Yum-Yum and Pish, Tush and Pooh-Bah you’re sending signals to the audience, but again, G & S were certainly never hesitant to skewer British culture in shows like H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance. The Mikado then would seem to be a concoction comprised of fantasia, congenial musical comedy and social whimsy. Trust me, I’m just trying to keep score.
As I have tried to explain, G & S often transcends the genre of comic opera, but every component : delivery, demeanor, tone, orchestration, has to be meticulous and contingent on the others. It’s a lot more difficult than it appears. There is a lot to enjoy and appreciate in ACT’s Mikado, the staging (and choreography?) by Director John Wilkerson, the playful, sometimes lavish, humor is fun and the proceedings are kept lively, jaunty and personable. The canned music (used for practical reasons I’m sure) is not successful here, though the timing of the performers is fine. I got the impression some of the cast members had a more intuitive grasp of the loopy, deadpan content. I daresay even when the waters are choppy Mr. Wilkerson’s instincts are good.
Artisan Center Theater’s production of The Mikado has been double cast, so I will list the actors I saw Saturday night, September 5th, below. (Illness has kept me from providing them with a prompt review and for this I am humbly begging their pardon.) The Mikado features a valiant, diligent cast. Especially noteworthy were Lauren Morgan (Yum-Yum), Amira Sharif (Pitti-Sing), Bob Beck (Pish) and Jonathan Kennedy (The Mikado). Brian Hales as Ko-Ko, The Lord High Executioner and Chelsea Duncan as Katisha, were quite delightful, bringing lots of wry gumption and mastery to their characters.
The set design, by John Wilkerson and Jason Leyva was practical, but still imaginative and eloquent, with a bridge, brook and fountain, a palace and turntable stage, as well as delicate, tranquil murals. Jennifer and Nita Cadenhead’s costumes were wonderfully varied and appealing to the eye, whether using elaborate weaves and patterns, or bold, striking monochromatic fabrics. These ladies knew how to incorporate the outlandish and other-worldly in their designs, which only enhanced the jubilant aspects of the show. Special praise must go to Ryan Smith for the hair and make-up design. Considering the need for numerous wigs and exotic cosmetic creations, Mr. Smith’s job must be painstaking indeed.
Artisan Center Theater of Hurst presents; Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, playing September 4th – October 10th. 418 East Pipeline Road, Hurst, Texas, 76053. 817-284-1200. http://www.artisanct.com. Box Office Hours: Monday-Friday : 10AM – 6 PM, Saturday : 10 AM – 2 PM.
Directed by John Wilkerson, The Mikado stars : Brad Stephens (Nanki-Poo), Lauren Morgan (Yum-Yum), Amira Sharif (Pitti-Sing), Arlette Morgan (Peep-Bo), Bob Beck (Pish), David Priddy (Tush), Gary Payne (Pooh-Bah), Jonathan Kennedy (The Mikado), Brian Hales (Ko-Ko, The Lord High Executioner), Chelsea Duncan (Katisha), and The Chorus : Jessica Peterson, Jennifer Cadenhead, Randal Jones, Mary Kreeger, Amy Jones, Lori Jones, and Traysa Waak. Set Design : John Wilkerson and Jason Leyna, Costume Design: Jennifer Cadenhead and Nita Cadenhead, Hair and Makeup Design, and Set Dressing : Ryan Smith. Lighting Design : Jason Leyva