Operetta Review: The Mikado (Charing Cross Theatre, London)

If you're wondering who they are... The cast of The Mikado. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

If you’re wondering who they are… The cast of The Mikado. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Rating: ***

In a Nutshell

An exquisite vision and lavish production from Thom Southerland, but fails to capture the “oomph” that is key to a great Gilbert & Sullivan (G&S) show.

Overview

W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s renowned opera set in fictional Titpu, Japan, is given a 1920’s British make-over. 2nd trombonist, Nanki-Poo, returns to Titipu when learning that Ko-Ko, the ward and fiancé of his beloved Yum-Yum, is set to be executed. But we he arrives, he finds that small town corruption and impossible politics have seen Ko-Ko promoted to Lord High Executioner. As Nanki-Poo tries to weave a way to regain his love whilst saving the neck of his chief adversary, the solution causes more problems that it solves. After all, Nanki-Poo is not quite the wandering minstrel he purports to be.

Rebecca Caine (left) as Kitisha and Steve Watts (right) as Pooh-Bah. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Rebecca Caine (left) as Kitisha and Steve Watts (right) as Pooh-Bah. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Music & Libretto

Gilbert and Sullivan create a wonderful farce that’s scathingly satirical and blissfully funny. Like with any of their works, they unmercifully send up the establishment and anyone caught in its wake. Here, romancing exotic Victorian ideas of the Far East, the text is also full of very tongue in cheek Japan-isms, especially such as the names of the characters. But they still lambastes government shenanigans and the idiocy of the gentry in doing so. A mad-cap farce of love and corruption, The Mikado has endured to make it one of the best known works from their anthology due to its scintillating wry libretto and memorable music.

As well as great comic numbers, what is perhaps most endearing about this particular operetta are several beautiful arias that are pricked with pathos, providing sublime diversion from the silliness. Particularly, “The Sun, Whose Rays Are All Ablaze” is just as much as a pull for the opera as it’s comedy. This results in a wonderful mix of pathos and humour that surprisingly compliment each other incredibly well and provides for a show with as much variety as laughs.

Unique to this and every production is the carrying on of the tradition where Ko-Ko’s “list” gets updated for each run to include modern references, sending up contemporary villains and celebrity nuisances. Here, the company does an excellent job of doing this, possibly providing bigger laughs than Gilbert & Sullivan’s text itself. However, the production also goes the extra mile to also give the same treatment to “A More Humane Mikado Never Did Exist in Japan”, which is just as bellowingly cheeky and hilarious.

Getting carried away! Matthew Crowe (centre) as Nanki-Poo. Photograph: Courtesy of Steve Rylander.

Getting carried away! Matthew Crowe (centre) as Nanki-Poo. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Direction & Production

Award winning director Thom Southerland has brought all the high quality hallmarks of his career to this production. The concept, setting the Mikado in a 1920s British Japanese fabric factory/shop, looks wonderful and provides a feast of visual fun. The blend of geisha glamour and Charleston glitz (with a dash of Weimar cabaret) gives Southerland plenty of ammunition to create a visual spectacular. Particularly, McKneely’s immense choreography really embraces Southerland’s vision, and ends up driving both the energy and the humour that runs through it. Then there are little visual quips too, such as the cast eating cucumber sandwiches using chopsticks which is just as delightful as the bigger more noticeable gags. Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are also sumptuous and are impressively detailed, brimming with colour and intricacies embracing this culture-crossover of east meets west. Everything about the production is lavish and well thought out. It’s as glorious an off-West End production as they come.

However, Southerland’s decision to turn to directing G&S, attempting to bring operetta to a theatre audience, is perhaps one of worthy but misplaced ambition. Despite an enthusiastic cast and gorgeous production, it’s a show that doesn’t quite get the essence of operetta, meaning that it falls flat and drags more than it should. The problem is that Southerland seems to be trying to direct The Mikado as if it were a theatrical comedy. Therefore, whilst it has the kitsch, it doesn’t have the camp energy that is essential to bring this to life in the way that it needs to.

A wandering minstrel, he. Matthew Crowe as Nanki-Poo. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

A wandering minstrel, he. Matthew Crowe as Nanki-Poo. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Producing and directing G&S is almost an academic affair. Notably, there are several highly acclaimed companies that specialise in performing there, such as the Charles Court Opera Company and D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. What they understand is that G&S operettas are pretty much the panto of opera: literally. Gilbert spent a lot of his early career writing pantomimes, and a lot of that is arguably incredibly prevalent in his work with Sullivan, and forms the basis of the style of the their operettas. Therefore, an unshakable and unabashed energy must run through it at all times. Characters needs to be larger than life rather than something more natural, and the pace must be unrelenting and over the top where it needs to be. This is something that Southerland hasn’t quite been able to capture here, although he starts getting close to this ideal in Act II.

Furthermore, it is beyond me why anyone would put on an operetta and have less than half the cast as trained classical singers. As talented a professional West End cast as this boasts, there is a power in a chorus and leading members that only classical training provides and is absolutely required even in operetta. This adds to the flagging energy at times as it means the show misses the aural “oomph” as much as the stylistic one. The bits that work best are when these involve the members of the cast who are classically trained, namely Rebecca Caine as Katisha, Mark Heenehan as The Mikado, and Leigh Coggins as Yum-Yum. Whilst the others match their comic performance skills, none ever quite capture the power and richness of their voices and the correct tonal and timbre treatment of the songs. For example, leading man Matthew Crowe as Nanki-Poo, is a well versed and celebrated musical theatre actor. But he’s not a classical tenor, meaning that in many of his songs he’s constantly resorting to using falsetto, meaning volume and power is instantly lost. Therefore, despite his reputation and skill, he becomes the weakest member of the cast because of this. It’s not at all his fault and is merely an error in casting.

Other missteps include things such as insisting on acrobatic movements during patter songs. A lot of the glorious libretto is lost in numbers such as “There Is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast” because it’s just plain difficult for a cast to annunciate these already quick-tongued songs without being expected to roll about on the floor!

In short, this is a striking production, but there’s a reason why specific G&S companies exist and why operetta is classed in an entirely separate genre to both opera and musicals. It’s something Southerland strives towards, but doesn’t at all achieve.

Such a beautiful left elbow. Rebecca Caine as Katisha. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Such a beautiful left elbow. Rebecca Caine as Katisha. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Cast

Caine absolutely steals the show as Katisha. There’s a power and playfulness in everything she does to make her an expert villain, making Cruella DeVille look like Marry Poppins by comparison. Yet, she brings a tenderness and unexpected humanity for her more reflective arias, especially “Alone, And Yet Alive” that is as unexpectedly striking.

Other mentions must go to Hugh Osborne and Steve Watts as Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah respectively. These two roles are pretty much the only two roles you can get away with not casting classically trained singers in, and they’ve been cast wonderfully. Osborne’s timid, ambitious, and fretful Ko-Ko and is complemented by Watt’s marvellous pompous and “grossly insulted” crocked aristocrat. They’re a formidable double-act that reel in the laughs and are a joy to watch.

Verdict

A very worthy and slick attempt at bringing G&S to new theatre audiences. But as slick as and meticulously produced as it is, it’s missed the mark by trying to treat operetta as a musical theatre rather than try to achieve the specialist approach that these famed pieces require. None the less, it’s still enjoyable and entertaining in spite of this, and is a fun and lavish evening out.

[youtube http://youtu.be/EX6TOmMMOkI]

The Mikado runs at the Charing Cross Theatre, London, WC2N 6NL.,until 3 January 2015. Tickets are £22.50 (concessions available). To book, visit www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk.

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