By W. S. Gilbert and A. Sullivan
Directed by Phil Lowery
Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek July 31-Aug. 2, 2008
Napa Valley Opera House, Napa, Aug. 9-10
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, Aug. 15-17
Roger Pierson as The Mikado. P:hoto: Irene Jerome
Bow, bow to the Mikado; defer, defer to the Lord High Executioner. Thrill to the (apparently) doomed love of a “wand’ ring minstrel” and a fair “little maid from school,” both, alas, otherwise engaged. Gilbert and Sullivan’s undisputed masterpiece is back in town and it’s “as welcome as flowers that bloom in the spring.”
If late-19th Century comic operetta seems to be an endangered species in our hard-edged times, it may be ironic to remember that wordsmith William S. Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan were the rock stars of their own day. Like Shakespeare, their works are open to wide interpretation. The innovative director Peter Sellars once set “Mikado” in the present day, flying the audience across the ocean in a jet during the overture, providing a corporate boardroom location for the opening “Gentlemen of Japan” chorus and transforming the hero into a punk guitarist, the heroine into a Valley Girl. It worked amazingly well.
That production was for Lyric Opera of Chicago, one of the heavy-hitters, but much credit should be given to smaller, mostly volunteer, troupes like San Francisco’s Lamplighters for keeping the G&S canon alive. The venerable company, now in its 56th season, first performed “Mikado” in 1953 and periodically brings it back to delight audiences. The current version, which opened in Walnut Creek and will be moving around the Bay throughout August, is notable, not only for the always-wonderful music, but for high production values. Opulent set and costume design (the latter by Beaver Bauer) transport you to a fairytale Japan from the moment the curtain goes up. The fictional town of Titipu never looked so good! Choreography goes ‘way beyond the old swaying to the right and swaying to the left.
And it all, for the most part, sounds fine too. Music director Baker Peeples’ orchestra could use a few more players but, nevertheless, did yeoman service to the sprightly score. Vocal standouts were mostly in the smaller roles, with one exception. Chris Uzelac was a delightfully fey Ko-Ko, the lead comic role of the tailor-turned-executioner. He sang wonderfully, moved well and displayed a great comic flair. As Ko-Ko should, he anchored the whole thing. Also excellent were Paul Murray, in his Lamplighters debut as a minor lord of the realm. He really should have had a bigger part. Ray Thackeray was imposing in the eponymous role of the bloodthirsty ruler. Cary Ann Rosko was Katisha, the old harpy, who made her entrance looking like Cher on a bad hair day and Allyson Paris sang a delightful Pitti Sing. Charles Martin was appropriately haughty as the Lord High Everything, Pooh Bah. The male and female choruses were outstanding. If there was some vocal weakness, it unfortunately resided in the two romantic leads. John Brown’s tenor was a bit wavery as Nanki-Poo, the son of the Mikado-turned second trombone and Elena Krell, who alternates in the role of Yum-Yum with Jennifer Ashworth, was a little heavy on the vibrato. Nevertheless, the acting was good and they made a pair of charming lovers.
Gilbert and Sullivan were social and political satirists, whether a particular work was set in Japan, a mythical fairyland (“Iolanthe”) or on the bounding main (“H.M.S. Pinafore”). Although many of the topical allusions go right over the heads of present-day Americans, there is a long tradition of inserting the up-to-date in some of the songs. This was manifest when Ko-Ko presented his “little list” of folks he would like to see led to the executioner’s block. Witty references to Republicans, people with cell phones and ipods can be credited to Christopher Walkey and Uzelac (Ko-Ko himself). The welcome addition of supertitles made it much easier to follow the rapid “patter songs” and generally a good time was had by all. Which is, after all what Gilbert and Sullivan is about.