REVIEW: The Mikado (Lyric Opera of Chicago)

     
     

Lyric creates a perfect holiday gift

     
     

01 Neal Davies as Ko-Ko center with Lyric Opera Chorus THE MIKADO DAN_4344 c Dan Rest

   
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents
   
The Mikado
   
Written by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Directed by Gary Griffin
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker (map)
through Jan 21  |  tickets: $48-$217   |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

I’ve found it, the perfect Christmas gift! It is Lyric Opera Chicago’s radiant, lush, sophisticated and gorgeous production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. One could even put a big red bow on it, the same color as the massive, velvety red flats that act as imperial Japanese doors to the proscenium of Lyric’s stage. They are perfect—as is the whole of Mark Thompson’s design for the production. How else to describe his set and costumes’ color palate but as a visual seduction that amplifies and fulfills Arthur Sullivan’s opulent score. Christine Binder’s lighting molds pure magic from Thompson’s rich golds, pinks, purples, reds, and sky blues, chartreuse 15 James Morris as THE MIKADO RST_9172 c Dan Restand wood tones. Updating the operetta to early 1920s Japan is also an inspired change that refreshes and illuminates good old G&S for today’s audience.

Conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and stage-directed by Gary Griffin, Lyric creates the kind of sumptuous dream that brings forth incredibly powerful musical moments, offset with sprightly comedy that makes the whole enterprise deceptively light and airy. That Davis and Chorus Master Donald Nally would draw gorgeous performances from their superlative cast may already seem a fete accompli to Lyric audiences; but that Griffin tops off the whole luxurious feast with the cherry and whipped cream perfection of precisely timed comedy is the real celebration of the evening. Clearly the cast is having too much fun and their enjoyment of W. S. Gilbert’s material is infectious.

Should this whole opera thing not work out, Neal Davies has a future in comedy. His Ko-Ko, a common tailor unexpectedly raised from near-execution (for the grave offense of flirting) to an appointment as Titipu’s Lord High Executioner, captures the wry mischievousness and cheerful nervousness of the arriviste who never expected to arrive. Of course, it helps to have one fabulously tacky hairpiece (wigs by Richard Jarvie) to clearly signal hopeful insecurity. Ko-Ko temporarily thwarts the romantic chance of the charmingly jejune Nanki-Poo (Toby Spence), who has journeyed to the village of Titipu to woo Yum-Yum (Andriana Chuchman), Ko-Ko’s ward and prospective bride-to-be.

      
07 Katharine Goeldner Andriana Chuchman Andrew Shore Emily Fons THE MIKADO RST_8395 c Dan Rest 10 Stephanie Blythe as Katisha THE MIKADO DBR_4064 c Dan Rest
06 Neal Davies as Ko-Ko THE MIKADO RST_8169 c Dan Rest 12 Toby Spence as Nanki-Poo Andriana Chuchman as Yum-Yum Neal Davies as Ko-Ko THE MIKADO RST_9010 c Dan Rest
   

In fact, in true G&S style, charmingly jejune is how one could describe the young leads of the show. It’s sounds cliché but, then, G&S revels in clichés–Spence and Chuchman make a darling, lyrical couple that clearly hasn’t got a gray cell to share between them. One relishes the heartfelt silliness of their romance, while becoming unfailingly reinvigorated at the prospect of romance succeeding—even though one can hardly say that it is ever really threatened. Meanwhile Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah (Andrew Shore) and Pish-Tush (Philip Kraus) regale the audience with the absurdities of their respective posts as Titipu’s administration. Shore doesn’t miss a hilarious beat pointing up Pooh-Bah’s ridiculous attachment to his pedigree or his decidedly mercenary approach to civil service. Together they crisply whip off “I am so proud,” wherein Ko-Ko realizes that, under the orders of the Mikado (James Morris), he must find someone in Titipu to execute within a month or it could be his head, once again, on the “big black block.”

Happily, Nanki-Poo arrives to do himself in and Ko-Ko persuades him not to squander his death in wasteful suicide—rather, do your patriotic duty and let the state kill you instead. He promises a month of married happiness with Yum-Yum in return for Nanki-Poo’s timely and well-celebrated execution. Just when it seems as though our young lovers have a chance at some limited happiness, Katisha (Stephanie Blythe) arrives in full force, seeking Nanki-Poo, who is actually the son of the Mikado and her betrothed.

Let me say that Lyric brought the big guns when they picked Blythe for this role. Her mezzo-soprano dominates the stage and one couldn’t ask for a more humorous or more resplendently-voiced ruthless virago. Tell us, how does it feel to have all that power, Ms. Blythe? Because Griffin’s staging allows her glorious full play, whether she is reaching operatic heights with the chorus with “Oh fool that fleest my hallowed joys!” and “For he’s going to marry Yum-Yum” or outshining the arrival of the Mikado in “Miya Sama.”

All that can be said of James Morris’s turn as the Mikado is that it’s too bad he doesn’t have more numbers. “A More Humane Mikado” is always an anticipated delight and Morris acquits himself with privileged dignity, polish and grace, while amusingly forbearing Katisha’s constant upstaging. The Mikado’s arrival precipitates the need for an execution and Ko-Ko decides to let Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo marry while faking Nanki-Poo’s execution on the death certificate. When Katisha discovers Nanki-Poo’s name on the certificate, his true identity as the Mikado’s son is revealed to all and Ko-Ko once again finds he is headed for the big, black block unless he can seduce Katisha into forgetting all about Nanki-Poo and marry him.

16 Neal Davies as Ko-Ko Stephanie Blythe as Katisha THE MIKADO RST_9339 c Dan RestThis is not to say that Davies’ excellent rendering of the classic “Tit-Willow” depends upon a tree, but Thompson’s set design brings home the song’s comic impact by balancing it against Yum-Yum’s enchanting declaration of self-love and Katisha’s misery at losing her chance at marital bliss. Under the radiant pinks of a tree festooned with cherry blossoms, Chuchman effortlessly delivers “The Sun Whose Rays;” the same tree is theatrically brought into the scene with twisted and barren branches against a backdrop of mournful indigos and purples when Katisha sings “Alone, and Yet Alive!” Then the same barren tree remains under which Ko-Ko stands to sing a made-up account, of a birdie committing suicide over blighted love, to seduce Katisha.

It’s a moment that simply and elegantly unites all three as it gently and reassuringly spoofs the heart in its outlandishly unreasonable passionate expectations.

It is a bit of silliness that is pure genius and that is what Lyric’s Mikado pulls off so well throughout the whole production. The show will send you into the cold winter night, your ear alight with its happy tunes and a joyful heart against the cares of this world. And what could be a better Christmas gift than that?

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

17 Andriana Chuchman Toby Spence Neal Davies, James Morris Stephanie Blythe THE MIKADO RST_9395 c Dan Rest

Running Time: 2 hours, 54 minutes. In English with projected English texts

 

 

     
     

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REVIEW: The Nutcracker (Joffrey Ballet)

     
     

Sugar plums in your tutu stocking

     
     

Nutcracker - Joffrey Ballet 2010

   
Joffrey Ballet presents
   
The Nutcracker
  
Written by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Directed by Robert Joffrey
at Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway (map)
through Dec 26  |  tickets: $25-$145  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Scrooge requires four ghosts to save his dark soul from excess personal savings. George Bailey gets help from an angel desperate to make good and to do it too. But Clara, the heroine of Tchaikovsky’s beloved Christmas ballet, earns her fantasy when she knocks out the Mouse King and frees her adored Nutcracker from his wooden curse. That’s the perfect excuse to dance up a storm—or a blizzard. Yes, it’s that time of year when six “Nutcrackers” hit the Chicago boards, none more splendid or popular than the Joffrey Ballet’s annual confection, a gift from the late Robert Joffrey that keeps on giving.

Miguel Angel Blanco and Victoria Jaiani in The Nutcracker - Joffrey BalletThis year’s spectacle—the 15th since its 1996 Chicago debut–was gloriously unwrapped and heartily cheered at the Auditorium Theatre on Friday night, as it definitely and annually deserves. Oliver Smith’s storybook set design is the perfect backdrop for the Victorian parlor from the 1850s, a magical battleground (against the Mice menace) and Land of Snow for the first half (choreographed by the late Gerald Arpino) and the spring-like Kingdom of Sweet for the second. (There’s enough snow by the end of the first act to satisfy a dozen Chicago blizzards, with some to spare for Minneapolis. That’s why we need the second act to sweeten the scene.)

The communal opening ball is, of course, a showcase for dancers, young and older. These depict the delighted guests at Clara’s beautiful American manse who marvel at Dr. Drosselmeyer’s cavorting automatons. Those mechanical dolls, rigidly presenting their preset terpsichorean displays, are a prelude to the real magic of the enchanted Nutcracker who, under a now-huge Christmas tree, helps Clara to free him from wooden bondage. That of course allows Drosselmeyer and the now humanly handsome Nutcracker to celebrate the victory with the Snow monarchs and their Snowflake corps de ballet, after which the Sugar Plum Fairy and her divertissements continue the fete in the hypoglycemic realm of sugary confections galore.

Anastacia Holden is the delighted Clara who serves as a lucky surrogate for all the kids in the crowd, with slim and elegant Mauro Villanueva as her dashing Nutcracker Prince. (His pas de deux with Yumelia Garcia’s ravishing Sugar Plum Fairy was perfect, precise and even passionate.) The second act’s novelty candy dances from Spain, Arabia, China, Russia and France amounted to a vaudevillian extravaganza in its own right. If the kids were any cuter, they’d explode.

      
Amber Neumann as Chocolate from Spain - Joffrey Ballet Chicago - Photo by Herbert Migdoll Fabrice Calmels and Kara Zimmerman in The Nutcracker - Joffrey Ballet
Anastacia Holden in The Nutcracker - Joffrey Ballet Nutcracker - Joffrey Ballet 2010

The Chicago Sinfonietta bring Tchaikovsky’s evergreen and everwhite score to generous life, a musical outpouring that ranges from 19th century quadrilles and polkas to waltzes that deserve their own perpetual motion. Hearing it makes you regret his suicide all the more. What marvels would he have composed after 53! That’s a fantasy we can’t indulge.

Speaking of homage, this year’s performance is nobly dedicated to the late Richard Ellis, who danced the role of Drosselmeyer for 27 years in Ruth Page’s Tribune Charities’ production at the Arie Crown Theater.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
   
  

Children cast in The Nutracker - Joffrey Ballet Chicago - photo by Herbert Migdoll

     
     

Mental Health Break: Silent Monks Singing Hallelujah Chorus

This is absolutely hilarious and incredibly original!  Take a look to see how a monastery of silent monks would sing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”:

And starting at the 2-minute-30-second marker, here’s a group of (cross-dressing?) nuns performing the same piece. Very funny, especially the nun to the far-right. What a hoot!!