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'The Mikado' Generates Astonishing Energy

Nothing about the physical set-up of The Hypocrites’ production of “The Mikado,” which ran March 31-April 5 at the Oberon, should have worked. All of the performers played their own idiosyncratic instruments—instead of using the classical accompaniment one expects of late 19th-century operetta, they strummed mandolins, blew saxophones, and played delightful miniature blue harpsichords, among many other folky hand-held instruments. While playing, singing, and acting, the performers also pranced from perch to perch in the Oberon’s open space, displacing lounging spectators with respectful taps on their shoulders. This does not even delve into the hundreds of balloons bouncing around the space, the Orientalist content of the play, or the fact that each lead also plays a supporting role of the opposite gender. That The Hypocrites’ “Mikado”, in spite of a deck intentionally stacked miles from coherence, was uproarious, sounded beautiful, and didn’t result in a banjo through someone’s eye was a true triumph for all involved.

The Hypocrites’ co-founder, Sean Graney, directed and adapted the 1885 work, occasionally replacing ornery language with contemporary pop-culture references. The result was a simplified yet still identifiably Victorian vision of the complex courtship between Nanki-Poo (Shawn Pfautsch), a royal in disguise, and Yum-Yum (Emily Casey), a maiden unhappily betrothed to Ko-Ko (Rob McLean), the Lord High Executioner of Japanese town facsimile Titipu. Other players included the overworked Pooh-Bah (Matt Kahler), who plays almost every bureaucratic role in Titipu, and Pitti-Sing (Lauren Vogel) and Peep-Bo (Dana Omar), Yum-Yum’s fellow maids. Graney deleted much of the context and racial politics to arrive at a snug 80-minute running time, less than half the duration of the original production. Within the abridged structure, however, he somehow managed to include almost all of the major numbers—“The sun whose rays are all ablaze,” and “Three little maids from school are we” appeared in their full glory—and to tie together the truly inexplicable turns of the plot at least somewhat cogently.

Co-director Thrisa Hodits and music director Andra Velis Simon deserve endless credit for having taken Graney’s frenetic adaptation and made it work both spatially and musically. The characters bounded around constantly, performing on the Oberon’s wrap-around balcony, stage, elevated seating area, and almost everywhere else in the vicinity. The movements, however, never appeared random or contrived. For example, when Nanki-Poo professed his love for Yum-Yum, he appropriately stood on a central dais. Katisha, Nanki-Poo’s spurned lover—also played by Pfautsch, in drag and self-accompanying on a glimmering sax that occasionally slipped into Gerry Rafferty’s mournful 1978 “Baker Street”—raged in on the right. Moreover, all of the players were more than cogent on their chosen instruments, while some, most notably the hilarious Mouse 1 (Doug Pawlik), played several with astonishing panache. In short, the wacky staging and instrumentation appeared not as pure gimmickry but rather as dexterous, if sometimes overwrought, choices to use the dynamic cast in as many ways as possible.

The cast’s moments of complete adherence to refined pronunciation and classical style acted as a collective reminder of the iconic nature of “The Mikado” score. There were moments, particularly in some of Koko’s numbers, where the operatic nature of the music was entirely lost and replaced with a vocal style more appropriate for rock opera. Even McLean’s occasional gruffness, however, took on vibrato and appeared supported at the moments it was most needed. As Pitti-Sing, Vogel buoyed the sopranos with reliable high-notes, and Kahler’s booming bass would have been believable on a more operatic stage. Some moments, however, required suspension of belief in the vocal integrity of the score, when country tonk and rock influences intentionally seeped through. That being said, the fact that any semblance of classical singing still existed within the cultural, musical, and physical pastiche of the show was a miracle in itself and thrilling when it came through most clearly.

Besides Ko-Ko’s sometimes strained voice, the acting, singing, and instrumentation were universally successful.  Pfautsch’s flamboyant Nanki-Poo, who was the butt of several groan-worthy jokes about his sexuality, was both likable and insufferable, while Casey’s Yum-Yum embodied sweetness and sincerity. Their chemistry, while decidedly non-sexual, elevated the show while allowing the more extreme supporting roles to run wild. The giddiness with which the actors presented their work and the wildly diverse ways in which Hodits and Velis Simon enabled them to do so made the show feel like a brand new piece, despite its obvious datedness. Even though the very performance of “The Mikado” has drawn criticism in recent years for its racist tones, it’s hard to imagine a more creative reclamation of the work.

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