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Trouble in Titipu

Atlas Performing Arts Center
04/09/2010 -  & April 10, 11m, 16*, 17, 18m, 23, 24, 25m, 2010
William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan: The Mikado
Allan Palacios Chan (Nanki-Poo), Sean Pflueger (Pish-Tush), Scott Kenison (Pooh-Bah), Jase Parker (Ko-Ko), Laura Stuart (Yum-Yum), Sarah Powell (Peep-Bo), Daniele Lorio (Pitti-Sing), Jennifer Randall (Katisha), David Williams (The Mikado)
Chorus and Orchestra of the The Washington Savoyards, Shawn Burke-Storer (Music Director)
Cindy C. Oxberry (Stage Director), Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden (Scenic Designer), Eleanor Dicks (Costume Designer), Andrew Cissna (Lighting Designer)

A. P. Chan, L. Stuart (© Jeff Malet)

Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, the ninth of their collaborations in a canon of fourteen comic operas, was premiered in London in 1885 at the Savoy Theater, where it enjoyed an initial run of 672 performances, and remains the most frequently performed opus of the “Savoy Operas”. It is perhaps, even to this day, the most popular opera in the English speaking world. Given the fact that it is especially a favorite in amateur and school productions, as well as in the opera house, and has been translated into many languages, The Mikado is probably produced around the world more times each season than either La bohème or The Marriage of Figaro. It is undeniably one of the most frequently performed operas in history.

Gilbert, who made a career of “poking fun” at British politics and institutions, often to the dismay of Queen Victoria, loved to set his operas in exotic locales such as Japan or Venice or in an imaginary Kingdom (as in Utopia, Ltd. or Princess Ida) to freely disguise and cushion the blow of his sharply pointed satire. And so in this opera we find ourselves in the imaginary Town of Titipu, somewhere in Japan during the reign of an ancient Mikado. I will certainly not write a synopsis of this very well known tale, but will suffice to say that the crux of the story deals with the town tailor Ko-Ko, who, condemned to death for flirting (a capital offense), assumes the position of Lord High Executioner. Upon notice from The Mikado that an execution must be carried out in Titipu within a month or the town will face dire consequences, Ko-Ko signs a false affidavit stating that a public execution has occurred. In his haste to carry out the Imperial Will, Ko-Ko unwittingly feigns the execution of the Heir Apparent to the Throne of Japan, causing great dismay to The Mikado and to his Daughter-in-Law elect.

This current production of the Washington Savoyards, which has been producing the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan to critical acclaim since the early 1970’s, has much to recommend. It is an extremely colorful and lively presentation, boasting a most attractive and competent chorus. All of the principal roles are well acted and for the most part very well sung. The costumes of Eleanor Dicks are gay and imaginative, and the stage direction of Cindy C. Oxberry is well delineated and detailed. Andrew Cissna’s lighting is not great and often distracting, as in Katisha’s poignant solo, “The Hour of Gladness”, where fireworks in the background take focus away from the singer, and split the audience’s attention. It is true that an earlier dialogue states “there will be a display of fireworks”, but this is not the scene in which to deploy them. Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s scenic design amounts to nothing more than a series of boxes of different heights, which are constantly being re-arranged, and on top of which the chorus and principals are continually positioning themselves. However it does the job, if only in the most minimal manner.

Shawn Burke-Storer is an excellent conductor, but he has to work all evening against the constraints of a less than ideal production space. As there is no orchestra pit, maestro and the musicians were placed far to stage left of the cast, which gives no eye contact whatever between the conductor and the cast. There are TV monitors placed left and right downstage, but they are apparently not much help as attacks, cut-offs, and ensemble in general are sloppy at best. Musical precision in opera demands that the conductor be directly front and center. Even in the large professional theaters such as the Kennedy Center Opera House, where monitors are sometimes employed if the stage director has the company face upstage and turn their backs to the maestro, musical accuracy goes right out the window. The orchestra however, which is reduced for lack of space, plays very well and holds everything together in the large ensembles.

As Ko-Ko, Jase Parker displays a fine sense of comic style and timing. His rendition of “I’ve got a little list” is very funny, rife with current political references. His best work comes near the end of the opera where his singing of “Tit Willow” and the duet with Katisha (‘There is beauty in the bellow of the blast”) are among the highlights of evening. Tenor Allan Palacios Chan is an ideal Nanki-Poo both in vocal quality and physical stature. He pairs very well with Laura Stuart as Yum-Yum. Ms. Stuart has a very beautiful and well-trained lyric soprano voice, which she uses to great effect in all of her scenes. With Daniele Lorio and Sarah Powell as her schoolgirl companions Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo, she forms a charming trio of “Three Little Maids”. Sean Pflueger was a solid and engaging Pish-Tush in spite of a peculiarly nasal voice. Scott Kenison was not to my liking at all. His “nelly” and effete characterization, coupled with the lack of a true bass voice made him a most unsatisfactory Pooh-Bah. The finest voice of the evening was that of contralto Jennifer Randall. As Katisha she lit up the stage, commanding attention in all of her scenes. Ms. Randall is one of the finest Katishas I have ever seen. She would be ideal in any number of the G&S contralto roles. In the title role of the Mikado, veteran Savoyard David Williams gave an exemplary portrayal. He has been doing these roles for well over forty years, and he gets better with each season.

These performances of The Mikado run through April 25. As a whole, the production is quite entertaining, with many excellent solo performances and a chorus that is superb throughout.

It is well worth the trip to the Atlas Performing Arts Center for a delightful and entertaining presentation of one of the world’s most popular theater pieces.

The Washington Savoyards

Micaele Sparacino



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