Entering the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center for The Mikado, be prepared for balloons. Hundreds of them; many of them being bopped in your general direction. Go ahead, bop them back. Have a seat in one of the circus style rings, right in the middle of the action. Or go play the basketball game, or join in the rousing rendition of that folky-pop tune “Brand New Key.” (Yep, that earworm from the early 70s.) Feel free to roam about the colorful mid-way and mingle with the other audience members or the friendly carnival folk whose domain this is.
Didn’t I say you were about to see The Mikado, the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta set in fictional Japan masking a satire of Victorian British society? Why would “Brand New Key” or even “So Happy Together” be part of the show? These moments are all part of the free-wheeling pre-show that sets up the atmosphere that is the hallmark of these adaptations of the satirical and tuneful operettas from the late 19th century.
A professional, store-front (i.e. small in size, high on creativity) theatre company from Chicago, The Hypocrites make no secret they were looking for a cheap way to do musical theatre and their founder and director Sean Graney was introduced to the oeuvre of William S. Gilbert – wordsmith – and Arthur Sullivan – the tunesmith. The Gilbert and Sullivan operettas have, sadly, been long out of favor with most theatrical producers. But these Victorian gems are royalty-free. And given that the actors would be serving as their own musicians, the idea of a new take on the silly but musically heavy operettas was born.
The Pirates of Penzance was their first venture into revamping Gilbert and Sullivan and it found a big audience in Chicago and has traveled to other major cities. In fact it plays in rotating repertory with The Mikado at Olney. (More on Pirates in a separate review.)
Actors serving as their own accompaniment on guitar, banjo, mandolin, clarinet, and assorted percussion is just one of the characteristics of a Hypocritics’ G & S production. Remember that carnival atmosphere I described earlier – a midway, carnival games and even several circus rings, not to mention the balloons? All of that is part of the show’s promenade style. A type of audience participatory style, promenade staging encourages members of the audience to sit among the players, sharing the space equally. The actors move around, signaling the audience to move when necessary.
Full disclosure: Even though everyone in the audience is highly encouraged to sit in the promenade section, to get the full experience, I chose to sit where I could see not only the action but the reactions of those in the promenade seats. (Plus I was quite happy to park my butt in one spot, thank you very much.) I admire the actors for fully embracing their chosen performance style and for having fierce amounts of concentration, even as one young audience member took the idea of playing with balloons to the level of assault with an inflated weapon during a quiet moment for actor Shawn Pfautsch.
What does the promenade staging have to do with Gilbert and Sullivan’s humorous musical? Well, not much of course, but it works. It is fun, winsome, and creates an atmosphere that screams for everyone to not take things too seriously. On this account, Sean Graney’s adaptation works very well. Both children and adults can just give in and become part of the frivolity for 80 minutes. Or to get technical, 81 minutes: the show includes a strictly timed intermission that runs 60 seconds. That is about the only thing that is structured in the whole show.
The performers certainly are part and parcel of the concept and the selling of it to the audience, along with the gifted designers Tom Burch (sets) and Heather Gilbert (lighting) who create the kaleidoscopic world in which the cast reenacts the tale of Titipu. Unlike traditional productions with a sizable chorus as well as the principal characters, ten actor/musicians make up the entire population of Titipu, now transported from a mythical Japan to … a carnival setting. “If you want to know who we are,” the cast sings stirringly,” We are citizens of this place!” The costumes, by designer Alison Stiple, reflect a hippy-dippy circus troupe that looks like it might break out into “Prepare Ye” or “Day by Day” from Godspell before warbling an operetta ditty.
closes August 21, 2016
Details and tickets
Some of the Victorian references and old shtick have been either cut out or re-tooled for this production. When Ko-Ko, Titipu’s former tailor who becomes the Lord High Executioner, attempts to soliloquize, he is cut off by a strolling player who plays a stringed instrument. “Mandolinist interruptus,” goes the line and a torrent laughter follows.
That mandolinist, here called Andy-Poo instead of Nanki-Poo, is played with charm and a winning voice by Shawn Pfautsch. Andy-Poo is really the son of the Mikado disguised as a traveling musician, attempting to escape the homely and formidable Katisha, a force to contend with and run away from at all costs. In a brilliant stroke of double-casting, Pfautsch also plays Katisha. His strong voice and comic timing easily switch from affable leading man to the harridan distinctly and memorably. (Pfautsch earns stand out credit for not breaking character when that little boy’s balloon antics went too far.)
Who would have thought to have the same performer play ingénue lead Yum-Yum and the powerful and imperial Mikado? Apparently director Sean Graney and his fearless company are willing to try such casting coups, and here Dana Omar portrays these roles memorably. Omar and Pfautsch’s voices blend perfectly in the romantic duets for Andy-Poo and Yum-Yum. One thing about this adaptation: the revised and truncated instrumentation does little to diminish Sullivan’s sparkling score.
The rest of the ensemble cast does not have to switch roles as crazily as Omar and Pfautsch, but they handle their individual assignments and playing with the same unbridled sense of fun. Matt Kahler is a hoot as the cowardly milquetoast Ko-Ko, which plays nicely against type, since he is a strapping guy with lumberjack beard. Mario Aivazian sneers his way into everyone’s heart as “lord high everything else,” Pooh-Bah, a satire on corrupt and bribable civil servants. Brian Keys sings up a storm as another Titipu official, Pish-Tush. Rounding out the cast are Lauren Vogel, Amanda Raquel Martinez, Kate Carson-Groner, Tina Munoz-Pandya, and Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo.
The Mikado was my introduction to The Hypocrites and their funky fresh versions of Gilbert and Sullivan, and after getting used to new atmosphere and interpretation, I sat back for an enjoyable 81 minutes. Could you ask for more from a summer night at the theatre?
The Hypocrites Production of The Mikado . Libretto by William S. Gilbert . Music by Arthur Sullivan . Adapted and directed by: Sean Graney . Featuring Mario Aivazian, Kate Carson-Groner, Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo, Matt Kahler, Brian Keys, Amanda Raquel Martinez, Tina Munoz-Pandya, Dana Omar, Shawn Pfautsch, and Lauren Vogel . Music director: Andra Velis Simon . Co-director: Thrisa Hodits . Scenic design: Tom Burch . Costume design: Alison Siple . Lighting design: Heather Gilbert . Sound design: Kevin O’Connell . Stage Manager: Miranda Anderson . Produced by The Hypocrites and presented at Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Jeff Walker .