The Lyric Stage’s opening production of their season, the comic operetta "The Mikado" is an enjoyable mishmosh. Director Spiro Veloudos throws a ton of styles, political touches, modern jokes, and talent into the mix. Not all of it works, but there’s plenty of entertainment in this crazy quilt of a production.
Originally produced by the D’Oyly Carte Company in 1885, "The Mikado" is the most often performed of all of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s works, and not just because of its appealing lack of royalties. The simultaneously complex and paper-thin plot allows for the exotic setting of feudal Japan, a double-handful of lovely melodies and more pompous, parodied characters than you can shake a samurai sword at.
Set in the fictitious Japanese village of Titipu, wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo tries to win the hand of the lovely Yum-Yum, despite her being betrothed to the unlikely Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko. Of course, Nanki-Poo is really royalty in disguise, so a mandated beheading, a cougar-ish noblewoman named Katisha and the unexpected visit of the ruling Mikado of Japan mean seriously comedic trouble in Titipu.
Director Veloudos’s "Mikado" is a series of juxtapositions. Janie Howland’s courtyard set features light dappled through blossoming cherry trees and a distant village in the shadow of Mount Fuji. But among the rooftops of that village you can spy Trinity Church and the Citgo sign, plus in the foreground...is that an elephant and zebra jogging by?
On the other hand, the gorgeously varied costumes by Rafael Jaen hew to the traditional, with tailored kimonos and a sublime tornado of robes for Katisha. Likewise the staging of the numbers is classically presentational and the vocal performances, for the most part, couldn’t be more traditional.
They also likely couldn’t be better, from the opening full-throated basso of "If You Want to Know Who We Are" to any number sung by Davron S. Monroe as Nanki-Poo or Erica Spyres as Yum-Yum. These actors previously shared the stage in the Lyric’s "Avenue Q," and now get to show off their lyrical chops, soaring through Sullivan’s melodies. Their performances are surprisingly nuanced and realistic for this type of show, as is, surprisingly, Leigh Barrett’s as the harridan Katisha (seriously, check out our touching rendition of "Alone, and Yet Alive!"). Barrett sports a delicious long red fright wig and still makes Katisha a very human character.
Just as successful but on the other end of the performance style spectrum are Rishi Basu as noble lord Pish-Tush, David Kravitz as the multi-titled Pooh-bah and Bob Jolly as Ko-Ko. Basu combines a glorious voice with a cherubic countenance, outdone in pomposity only by Kravitz, a walking parody of simpering, equivocating, CYA-ing politicians everywhere (one of Pooh-Bah’s many government titles is Secretary of Homeland Security). Kravitz has a joy in his performance that’s infectious, whether sneering or succumbing to the giddy dance of a gang of schoolgirls.
Jolly speak-sings Ko-Ko like a 1950’s comedian, double-taking and fast-talking, making the most of a very modern version of "I’ve Got a Little List," newly annotated by Jolly himself with Deb Poppel and music director Jonathan Goldberg.
The modern references to the Tea Party, both Democratic and Republican national conventions, and, more locally, the horrors of a B-line train ride continue with the entrance of Timothy John Smith as the Mikado himself.
In a show that’s a potpourri of tones, Smith is operating on a level all his own, gleefully playing the Mikado as a bouncing, Tigger-like product of perhaps decades of careful royal inbreeding. Smith combines the madness of King George with the bounding, jovial antics of a St. Bernard puppy and the manicure of "Big Trouble in Little China"’s Lo Pan. It’s a crazy mess that shouldn’t work but does so thoroughly that it’s just the tonic to spring Act Two forward to its natural cliched happy ending.
Even if you don’t find half the jokes amusing, this "Mikado" throws so much at the audience that it’s an entertaining hodge podge even for those who don’t like Gilbert and Sullivan. For those who do, the vocal mastery of the cast alone is enough to warrant a visit to this Titipu.
"The Mikado" continues through October 13 at the Lyric Stage Company in Boston. For more info you can go to the company’s website.