When you think Opera Theatre, do you think giant stuffed Pokemon, an Elvis impersonator, and the cast of Sailor Moon?
Neither did I.
However, these thoroughly ridiculous and over-the-top characters, along with wonderful music and a whimsical story are what make up this quirky and modern version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado showing at The Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts.
This comedic two act opera opened for the first time in London in 1885 as a satire of British government camouflaged in Japanese dress and setting. Today, it still holds the political thrust but is aimed more toward a 21st century crowd just looking for some laughs. The story follows our hero, Nanki-Poo, (which immediately brings to mind a neglected brown Teletubbie) disguised as a traveling minstrel but who is really the son of the Emperor of Japan. Nanki-Poo has run away from home to escape an arranged marriage to the horrible and ugly Katisha. He comes to the town of Titipu (for real) and falls in love with the bubbly and naïve Yum-Yum, who is the ward and fiancée of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. Still with me? Throw in the conniving and greedy Poo-Bah who accepts the title of “Lord High Everything Else” after inheriting all but one of the government offices, the all-powerful but easily led Mikado, and a chorus of singing businessmen and giggling schoolgirls to complete this perfect picture of the foolish and absurd. But just when you think to yourself “This can’t really be opera…” is when the truly astounding voices of the cast are revealed and you realize that although it’s hidden behind silly dress and manner, singing like this is rare genius.
In addition to these beautiful voices, the show has a unique pop culture appeal. From the moment the chorus whips out cell phones and laptops in the opening scene, the audience can tell this isn’t going to be a stuffy, out-dated performance. One of the major selling points of this production has to be relatability. This opera incorporates everything from Cosmopolitan magazine and Hello Kitty backpacks to Paris Hilton and Hilary Clinton references. An ongoing source of laughter was the character Pish-Tush (played by Matthew Burns) who wore roller shoes during the entirety of the show. This high tech update really made the show an interactive experience because the audience was always “in on the joke.”
Mikado’s costumes were just as outrageous and colorful as the performances. Patrick Miller portrays a lovable Nanki-Poo in orange cowhide print pants, a letterman’s jacket, and a cartoonish quaff of black hair, complete with sideburns. Katherine Jolly’s Yum-Yum resembles a deranged anime Barbie doll from pink knee high boots to her platinum blonde hair. Though these two lovers led the story, the secondary characters really won the crowd over. The villain, Katisha was larger than life and bared a striking resemblance to Ursula from The Little Mermaid with a skintight dress that was covered in flame print in case you didn’t catch the fact that she was evil. Matt Boehler as Poo-Bah is the fiend you love to hate dressed all in white suit and David Kravitz was pitch-perfect as Ko-Ko, the scheming but tenderhearted Lord High Executioner.
This operetta, while providing a fresh outlook, seemed to encompass quite a bit of Shakespearean theme. With mistaken identity, starcrossed lovers, and more farce than you can shake a stick at, The Mikado echoes with the question “Where have I heard that before?” Despite these similarities, however, Gilbert and Sullivan’s unparalleled musical brilliance combined with the unique and modernized Japanese setting provides enough originality for Mikado to stand on its own.