by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
directed by Michele Travis
at the Agassiz Theatre
through December 12
It is a tribute to the skill and obvious enthusiasm of the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players that The Mikado can still deliver an evening of comic entertainment that rivals a feature film or an experiment at the Loeb Ex.
The operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan have held a place of affection among the musically-inclined public for over a hundred years. The Mikado arguably ranks highest on their lengthy list of favorites. In its heyday of 1886, as many as 170 performances are said to have occurred across the country on just one evening. The Players bravely present this classic to a twentieth century audience jaded by MTV, post-modernism and hallucinogens.
The cast is charged with the delicate task of combining strong vocal ability with an equally strong mastery of comic delivery. They don't always succeed, but the production flies when they do.
Problems include kimonos that look more like bathrobes and a set dominated by amateurish poster-painted flowers.
The plot of The Mikado, as always with Gilbert and Sullivan, is hopelessly convoluted. Suffice it to say that a mistaken identity/revealed identity/unlucky (but ultimately happy) couple formulation is, with some deviations, followed.
Most notable among the cast is Edward Upton, who plays Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. Funny to the point of neurosis, he manages to maintain credibility and yet is in no danger of taking himself too seriously--a fatal error in a Gilbert and Sullivan production.
There are noticeably no women on stage at the start of the operetta and when they do shuffle in, flapping their fans and rustling their pastel kimonos, it is a relief to see them.
But ultimately it is the men--Ko-Ko, Nanki-Poo (Braden C. Linard) and a wonderfully rotund Pooh-Bah (Skip Sneeringer)--who make The Mikado worthwhile.
Perhaps Radcliffe women are too liberated to portray mincing Japanese maidens. Their collective performance never transcends the distraction of cheap costumes and dyed black hair. What could be funny is simply silly.
In the female lead of Yum-Yum, Rachel Storch's vocals are masterful. Her voice is clear and sweet and among the strongest in the show. She does not deliver her lines with the hilarity of, for example, Sneeringer as Pooh-Bah, who haughtily claims a direct line of descent from a "protoplasmal primordial atomic globule."
Linard, as the disguised son of the Mikado, adds strong vocals to the part of Nanki-Poo and his acting, suitably sappy, is accomplished.
A brief appearance is made by Kathyrn Vaughan as Katisha, the delightfully evil would-be lover of Nanki-Poo. Her singing is weak in the upper register, but she more than makes up for it with her humorously overdone swooping, cackling and hissing.
The best moments occur with most of the cast on stage. No stilted choreography mars the action. With a few exceptions (notably the hollow scenes featuring only loving couple Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo or only Yum-Yum and her two maids), director Michele Travis smoothly guides her cast through a three-hour long performance.
The Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players are the second largest theater group on campus. It includes 50 people in the company alone, not to mention the production staff and orchestra.
The rewards for participation must be personal, because neither fame nor fortune, or even moderate on-campus notoriety is to be expected for the stage managers, the make-up designer or the properties manager. In fact, most audience members at last Friday's performance were over 50 or under 12. Producers Miriam Greener and Michael Rosenbaum coordinated the behemoth production suitably.
Members of the orchestra are similarly selfless. While the musical accompaniment is crucial and certainly adequate in this production, it is not a memorable aspect of the performance. Indeed, some members of the orchestra were seen yawning in between cymbal claps or horn toots.
Three hours is a long time to spend in a cramped, somewhat overheated theater. Gilbert and Sullivan is an acquired taste, and lacks the flash and snazz of modern entertainment. But the peculiar wit of Gilbert and Sullivan is faithfully served in this performance. The two Brits would be proud to have their work so fervently reenacted.
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