REVIEW: The Pirates of Penzance (The Hypocrites)

  
  

The Pirates go promenade with delightful results

  
  

Ryan Bourque, Shawn Pfautsch, Zeke Sulkes, Doug Pawlik, Matt Kahler in Hypocrites Pirates of Penzance

  
The Hypocrites present
  
The Pirates of Penzance
      
Music/Libretto by Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert
Directed by
Sean Graney
Music Direction/Arrangements by
Kevin O’Donnell 
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through Jan 30  |  tickets: $28  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Sean Graney has shown that he can create provocative dramas, boisterous comedies, and heartwarming children’s shows, and with The Pirates of Penzance he brings his unique voice to opera. Staging the show in promenade, Graney puts the audience on stage with the actors, giving viewers a brand new perspective of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic. Reveling in the absurdity of the plot – the courtship of Major General Stanley’s (Matt Kahler) daughters by the worst pirates ever – Graney applies the same hyper-silliness that has characterized his recent Court productions. Self-awareness, slapstick, Robert McLean in Pirates of Penzance - Photo by Paul Metreyeonand sight gags have become the major weapons in Graney’s comedic arsenal, but the addition of music forces a focus from the director that brings all the elements together in harmony.

Also serving as the pit, the actors give O’Donnell’s acoustic arrangements the breezy summer vibe of musicians like Jason Mraz or She & Him, while still being able to switch into classical mode when needed. Modernizing Sullivan’s music works well with Graney’s concept, which reimagines the pirates as a gang of man-children in too-short shorts, shrunken undershirts, and high top sneakers. This is a group of men that would rather sip Frescas and riff on the ukulele than pillage and plunder, and the music reflects that carefree attitude in a way the traditional score can’t.

I believe promenade staging is a major part of live theatre’s evolution. In a world where entertainment is available at the click of a mouse, removing the fourth wall and placing the audience on stage creates an experience that can’t be streamed or downloaded. It is a thrill unique to the theater, giving the observer unparalleled freedom to interact with an environment that is usually seen from a distance. There are seats for those that would choose to stay inactive, but the real fun happens when you find yourself surrounded by a gang of people in tutus and boxer shorts strumming guitars and singing four part harmonies. Seemingly minimal actions like moving off a bench to allow for an actor’s entrance force people out of their seats and into the actors’ world, and a sense of community builds among the audience as they collectively await the next surprise. That sense of unpredictability is hard to find, especially in a show as well known as Pirates of Penzance.

     
Matt Kahler, Christine Stulik - Hypocrites Pirates of Penzance Becky Poole, Emily Casey, Matt Kahler, Shawn Pfautsch, Ryan Bourque, Nikki Klix - Pirates of Penzance

After turning 21 and leaving his servitude to the Pirates of Penzance, Frederic (Zeke Sulkes) rejoins civilization and falls in love with Mabel (Christine Stulik), the beautiful daughter of a Major General. As Frederic’s swashbuckling comrades are paired off with Mabel’s sisters, the Pirate King (Robert McLean) and Ruth (Stulik), the haggard ship nurse, conspire to keep Frederic a member of their crew. Stulik gives an outstanding performance in her dual roles, showcasing a clear voice that stays strong over a wide range. Her combination of vocals with strong comedic timing and physicality is reminiscent of 90’s SNL members Cheri Oteri and Ana Gasteyer, but they likely lack Stulik’s instrumental prowess. Kahler’s Major General has the production’s most impressive number, performing the character’s famous tongue-twisting solo backed by the entire ensemble. Amazing diction and control are required, and Kahler hits his consonants with pointed precision, racing to the song’s heated conclusion.

Each of the actors involved in this production is given an enormous amount of work to do: playing, singing, and dancing, all while trying to remember blocking in a space filled with audience members. That the production moves smoothly without a single hitch is a testament to the effort put in by the entire creative team, spearheaded by the consistently innovative Graney. It may not look or sound like any Gilbert and Sullivan opera you’ve ever seen, but it will probably be the most fun.

  
 
Rating: ★★★½
     
  

Nikki Klix, Emily Casey, Becky Poole - The Hypocrites Pirates of Penzance

  
  

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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: Hot Mikado (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

 

Nanki Poo, Zoot Suits and Dancing – Oh my!

 

(L-R) Andy Lupp (Pish Tush), Todd Kryger (Pooh-Bah) and Stephen Schellhardt (Ko Ko) star in HOT MIKADO at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace through October 3.

   
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
   
Hot Mikado
  
Written by Gilbert and Sullivan
Directed by
David Bell
at
Drury Lane Oakbrook, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through October 3  |  tickets: $31-$45  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

If imitation is the highest compliment, in 1939 Gilbert and Sullivan‘s The Mikado was praised to the skies: no less than two all-black, all-jazz versions from Chicago and from New York played opposite each other on Broadway. (Alas, they beat each other to a draw, ticket-wise.) It must have seemed as if America would swing its way out of the Depression, with some help from two dead Victorian males.

HOT_MIKADO--Aurelia_WilliamsA Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre revival (Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre "premiered" this version in 1993), Hot Mikado is director/choreographer David H. Bell‘s sizzling homage to those ever-young jitterbug versions. (Purists may carp but then nothing in Sullivan’s music was any more "Japanese" than are these jazz translations, while Gilbert’s satire is timeless.) This time it’s a proscenium presentation and that gives it even more depth and scope than the original arena production.

Retaining the topsy-turvy tale of how Nanki Poo, the Mikado’s son who poses as a wandering minstrel, falls in love with the aggressively demure Yum-Yum; pursued by the voracious harridan Katisha, he’s almost executed by his rival Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. The Mikado’s arrival causes instant confusion, then the requisite resolution.

Based on a successful 1986 production that Bell first mounted at Ford’s Theatre in Washington that has gone on to play London’s West End, Dublin and Prague, Hot Mikado is blessed with music director Michael Mahler‘s period-perfect musical Midas touch. It also has one of the loveliest looks of a Drury Lane show: Marcus Stephens’ set enchants illuminated Japanese footbridge, pavilion and cherry trees with leaves of fans and Japanese lanterns. Jesse Klug lights it like a rainbow in heat, though Jeremy Floyd‘s time-traveling costumes would be bright in the dark.

True to its name, Hot Mikado sizzles with David Bell‘s Lindy-hopping, be-bopping, high-stepping dances; dolled up in Zoot suits or bodice bursters, the all-dancing cast turn the Mikado’s entrance into a tap-dancing tour-de-force (led by Ted Levy’s inexhaustible Bojangles imitation in the title role) and hoof up a storm to "Swing a Merry Madrigal." "Three Little Maids" here becomes a hep-swinging Andrew Sisters ballad. The red-hot first act finale comes straight from Stork Club heaven, with a hint of gospel and a highly anachronistic allusion to disco.

 

HOT_MIKADO--Ted_Levy HOT_MIKADO--Devin_DeSantis_and_Summer_Smart

Bell’s troupe (which includes Susan Moniz, who was Yum-Yum 17 years ago in Lincolnshire) sing and dance into a lather. A throwback to classic vaudeville (as veteran Ross Lehman was in Lincolnshire), Stephen Schellhardt gives Ko-Ko alternate touches of Groucho and, even, in his crying fits, Stephen Colbert showing some sentiment. Surprisingly self-effacing even at his hammiest, Schellhardt shows the gentle wistfulness of Keaton and Chaplin and his double takes show stopwatch timing.

As the cavorting cuties, Devin DeSantis’ crooning Nanki-Poo and Summer Naomi Smart’s demure but designing Yum-Yum bring new life to "This Is What I’ll Never Do." Todd M. Kryger oozes pomposity out of Pooh-Bah and Moniz’ Pitti-Sing belts to beat the Big Band.

But the stand-out show-stopper is easily Aurelia Williams, a powerhouse to equal Felicia Fields in Bell’s Lincolnshire debut. Playing the awesome Katisha as a blues-wailing big mamma, she tears the heart out of "The Hour of Gladness" and wipes the set with "Alone and Yet Alive." No surprise that Williams got the biggest ovation at the curtain call: She supplies the heat in Hot Mikado.

Pizzazz-packed as it is, it’s still possible to wish that, color-blind casting aside, Hot Mikado was, like its original, all-black (instead of, as here, fitfully integrated). It’s weird to hear white performers sing what you know would be cooked to a crisp by a black cast. Soul singing, especially of blues standards, will belong culturally to some folks more than others. But then Marriott’s production was equally opportunistic, so I’m resigned to it.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★