Election-Year Escapism: THE MIKADO

Erica Spyres (Yum-Yum) and cast of The Mikado at The Lyric Stage. Photo by Mark S. Howard

The Mikado, music by Arthur Sullivan, libretto by W.S. Gilbert
Directed by Spiro Veloudos

Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA
September 9 – October 13

Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook

It is rare to see good actors overacting, over-annunciating and mugging the audience to ring out every laugh. It is even rarer to enjoy every minute of it. In the Lyric Stage Company’s staging of Gilbert and Sullivan’s the Mikado, you get the delicious treat of both.

If you have never seen a Gilbert and Sullivan play, then now’s the time to get initiated with this production. G&S is a world into itself, with a pair of 19th century Brit writers torching U.K. mores with plays set, at least somewhat, in exotic locales. The standard rules of theatre are suspended here, and believability often takes a back seat to enjoyment in these absurd musicals.

With The Mikado, vaudevillian British comedy comes to Edo, Japan. I could try and sum up the plot, but it would get messy in this paragraph and all the commas would run away, so let me just say it involves high-jinks between a prince in hiding, a reluctant executioner, and a maiden named Yum-Yum. That’s right, Yum-Yum. The script spurns traditional realism to create its own reality, but Gilbert and Sullivan’s writing and Spiro Veloudos’ staging conspire to make you buy into the bizarro world by the final act.

It helps that the production steps out of 19th century humor with new lyrics to roast everything that infurirates a Bostonian about the modern age, especially when it comes to politics. Careful listeners can hear references to Mitt Romney, Tip O’Neill, and the MBTA green line, just to name a few additions.

Having cut my theatrical teeth watching artless and, more often than not, uneven performances of Gilbert and Sullivan community theater productions, I was curious how a pro cast would handle such a script. The Mikado is full of thespian absurdities, with characters spelling out subtexts in scene-breaking explanations, songs designed more for whimsy than plot, and cringe-inducing puns. But Veloudos’ cast creates an enveloping meta-theatrical experience, as the actors simultaneously breathe life into two-dimensional characters while using their characters’ absurdity to create a hilariously shallow experience. It’s as if the actors are operating on two different levels, both creating wooden characters and laughing with the audience at the characters created. And best yet, the cast makes it look so fun and easy.

The key to the production’s success is that no one in the cast or production team flinches from the challenge. The Mikado may be in Japan, but the cast is certainly not all Japanese. This makes sense, in a way, because save for some fan flicking, no one really acts as if they are in Edo Japan. So while Scenic Designer Janie Howland creates a perfectly believable and grounded Edo-era village square, Costume Designer Rafaeil Jaen lets us in on the joke by using rubbery topknot skull caps that look more for a skit of the Coneheads on SNL.

The cast is stellar, and each arrives at G&S absuridity in his or her own way. Bob Jolly (Ko-Ko), for example, creates a character who looks like a fat Elvis, and is just as spaced out as one, too. Jolly amazingly and intentionally keeps his character one quarter-beat behind the action, even during songs, and never lets on that he knows exactly what he’s doing. Davron S. Monroe (Nanki-Poo), meanwhile, purposely makes his character appear as if he has memorized every eyebrow lift and hand gesture beforehand, but Monroe has such grace that we know he is reacting rather than regurgitating. Meanwhile, Timothy John Smith (the Mikado) creates an amiable tyrant who oozes and slides through his scenes with evil aplomb, and we can sniff his oily badness in his pores.

The female members of the cast, on the whole, are given the difficult and thankless task of being as energetic as gerbils on espresso. It is something to behold as the three principal maidens descend and surround a character and chatter separate stories while prancing in a circle. While their performances blur together in winsomeness and hyperactivity, they work as a team to create an enjoyable stage presence akin to a gentle breeze on top of a moving Ferris wheel.

And they set up the command performance from their lone dissenter, a scorned older woman of the court named Katisha. With her striking and menacing portrayal of Katisha, actress Leigh Barrett owns the stage partly because there is nothing frivolous about her character. Barrett achieves the gold star of the performance by creating something wholly new from the gauzy scraps that Gilbert and Sullivan have thrown to her. G&S plays are filled with supposedly-ugly women who chase after the male lead, but Barrett proves that well-behaved women seldom own the spotlight.

Cast off your need for gritty realism and Tony-award winning songs and you will come to a happy place of ridiculousness when you watch The Mikado.

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