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Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Delightful ‘Mikado’

Reinvigorating the Gilbert and Sullivan classic

Mar. 23, 2015
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Photo by Mark Frohna

Even those who are not enamored of Gilbert and Sullivan’s brand of Anglophile musical theater may find Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s new production of The Mikado, which literally leaps beyond the stage at Next Act Theater, a complete delight from beginning to end. The 1885 comic tour de force is hailed as a harbinger of modern musical theater, but this new production takes a much needed poke at the traditional English approach to light opera.

Gone is the treacly sentiment and the too precious irony so often mirrored in presentations of their work. Gone is the formalized staging, which tends to weigh down the will-o'-the-wisp, sleight-of-hand spontaneity of the composer’s best works. Gone is the string orchestra so taken for granted as part of the score. Instead what confronts the audience is a gaggle of percussion instruments —glockenspiel, drums, xylophones, gongs sundry noisemakers and trombone accompanying a cast of exuberant young people in casual dress romping joyously across the stage (yet somehow leaving the score miraculously intact).

One might say that this production is satire of a satire. Gilbert and Sullivan liked to poke fun at British formality. Here the dialogue has been cleverly updated to include a few regional jokes at our current social system, including a dig at our own governor’s educational views, but it’s all in fun. Doug Jarecki as the Mikado delivers some of the most sarcastic lines. Nathan Wesselowski as Nanki-Po opens the show with “A Wand’ring Minstrel” and, with Susan Wiedmeyer as Yum-Yum heads a cast uniformly exuberant throughout. Diane Lane as the neglected Katisha stands out with her powerful soprano.

“Three Little Maids” and “Tit-Willow” gain a metallic new charm. One never misses the strings. In fact, this unconventional approach actually brightens the music, particularly for those unimpressed by more sedate Gilbert and Sullivan performances. The effect is one of sheer, unadulterated delight, providing a barely concealed source of guilty pleasure for the die-hard traditionalist and the joy of discovery for the uninitiated. The show remains irresistible on all counts.

The Mikado continues through March 29 at Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St. For tickets, call 1-800-838-3006 or visit milwaukeeoperatheatre.org.

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