Lamplighters' 'The Mikado' begins its Bay Area run
by Philip Campbell
San Francisco's Lamplighters Music Theatre, the best Gilbert & Sullivan troupe west of the Atlantic, opened their 60th season last week at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek with The Mikado or The Town of Titipu . Generally regarded as the magnum opus in a glittering catalog of treasured works, The Mikado seems a fitting choice for the sturdy Savoyard's diamond jubilee. Opening night was not without problems, and there was a curious lack of energy in the audience, but if the performance didn't generate much sense of fun, it still conveyed the earnest concentration of the cast and their intense efforts in getting it right.
The Lamplighters are known and beloved for their ultra-traditional approach. Every word and note of music is always carefully in place. Once they relax and start enjoying themselves with this production, it will communicate better to the audience. The rest of the run should be a typically happy romp through one of the wittiest and most tuneful operettas ever written.
The Mikado remains appealing not only for the continuous stream of Arthur Sullivan's memorable tunes, but also for the trenchant humor of William S. Gilbert's book. The story is actually more understandable than some in the duo's hilarious canon, but the plot is really just an excuse for one great musical number after another. H.M.S Pinafore, Pirates of Penzance and Iolanthe all have their fabulous charms, but Mikado has an embarrassment of riches. Truly lovely ballads and arias are mixed with droll comic material that never seems to age.
When the Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko recites his famous little list ("As some day it may happen"), the traditional addition of some contemporary potential victims (sanctimonious bicyclists, texting motorists, most CEOs, and even Sarah Palin) lets us know we are in G & S heaven. As performed by F. Lawrence Ewing, it got some of the evening's biggest laughs. His entrance, "Behold the Lord High Executioner," alerted us immediately to his star status. With a wig that makes him look like a tall and rubber-limbed schoolmarm, Ewing went through his paces (a clear and amusing reference to one of Danny Kaye's dance routines in The Court Jester ) and some amusing sight gags with careful attention to detail. His singing is more than adequate, and more importantly, his timing is good. What he lacked on opening night was spontaneity, but the potential is there. All he has to do now is cut loose and trust.
As Nanki-Poo, the Mikado's son disguised as a minstrel and condemned to death for flirting (hey, this was the Victorian era), tenor Robert Vann was a bit tentative vocally, but he looked the part of an ardent young lover, and the metallic edge to his voice was not displeasing.
As his beloved Yum-Yum (oh, those marvelous names!), Lindsay Thompson Roush was a standout. Her acting and singing were assured, and she appeared to be very comfortable with her portrayal. "The sun, whose rays are all ablaze" at the top of Act II was exceptionally lovely.
(Photo: David Allen)
Another of the "three little maids from school," Molly Mahoney as Pitti-Sing, also appeared thoroughly immersed in her role and untroubled by any opening-night jitters. It is not often that her part is given such character and memorable humor. It would seem the women were most ready to let it all out and perform with merry abandon. Certainly, Sonia Gariaeff as the old battleax Katisha didn't care if she screeched a bit or went down an octave or two to get a laugh. Her costume and wig got chuckles the moment she appeared.
The other males in the cast may have fallen prey to nervousness, but it was only apparent from their unnecessarily staid interpretations. Robby Stafford's Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else ("I was born sneering") hit his marks and got the job done with plenty of conviction. "I am so proud" was sung so that each delightful word could be heard and understood, but it wasn't as amusing as we would expect. The use of supertitles is really not needed with the Lamplighters, and it also telegraphs the punchlines.
The Mikado himself was a physically impressive Wm. H. Neil (yes, that's how he is listed in the program), and his sheer size (helped by an impressive headdress) added humorous gravitas to his performance. He could loosen up a bit, but the part doesn't call for much clowning to convince us.
As Pish-Tush, a noble lord, John Melis made a blandly attractive appearance. He, too, should grow into the role as the run continues.
The best part of the show was happening in the orchestra pit. How conductor Monroe Kanouse can make a 21-piece crew sound symphonic is astonishing to me. We applaud the Lamplighters' tradition of acoustic performances and their remarkable commitment to musical values. I just might have to catch this diamond jubilee production again when it hits the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. All the ingredients are in place, the show should only get better.
The Mikado (stage director: Jane Erwin Hammett) plays the Napa Valley Opera House, Aug. 4-5; Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Aug. 11-12; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF, Aug. 16-19; and the Bankhead Theater, Livermore, Aug. 25-26. Info: www.lamplighters.org.