The Mikado for Adult Children with Milwaukee Opera Theatre
It’s about doomed love, capital punishment, and bureaucracy. And it’s a comedy. Blindingly bright colors clash against the darkness as love mingles with the impending threat of death in musical comedy that feels very, very big on a very small stage. When I was there I wanted my kids there. Honestly, though, Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado is just a bit too long and too late for most grade school and preschool kids. That being said, the bright colors and wacky instruments used in the production...the overall sense of fun feels very much like kid’s theatre for adults in the best possible way.
It’s been said that there’s no way to make the old story anything other than racist and orientalist. It’s the story of Ko-Ko, Yum-Yum and Ninki-Poo in the Town of Titipu. Forced cultural stereotypes are shoved into a weird story about a Lord High Executioner who really doesn’t want to be executing anybody. How does one remove the Orientalism? Director Jill Anna Ponasik has a brilliant approach. Treat it like kids' fare for adults. Ko-Ko, Yum-Yum and Ninky-Poo really aren’t that far from Dipsy, Po, Laa-Laa and Tinky Winky when you think about it. Take away all of the cultural offensiveness and you end up with a really weird, surrealistic children’s story for adults that uses a stylish kids’ theatre mood to deliver rather sophisticated sociocultural satire.
Jason Powell tumbles across the stage in clever comic form as the Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko. Toweringly charismatic Nathan Wesselowski launches comic intensity into the production in the role of Nanki-Po--the only son of the great and glorious ruler of the entire land who walks the earth disguised as a mild-mannered second trombonist. That the towering figure of his father is, himself, played by enduring Milwaukee comedy talent Doug Jarecki does wonders for the production as well. Nanki-Po and Ko-Ko are both quite fond of the same woman: the mind-bendingly beautiful Yum-Yum, played her with more than requisite grace and beauty by Susan Wiedmeyer. A brilliant addition to the ensemble, Wiedmeyer sings, glides and...taps her way through the dramatic comedy.
With its clever mix of studio theatre comedy and strange collection of instruments and noisemakers pulsating through a darkened stage punctuated by splashes of garish color, Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s The Mikado comes really close to being perfect. Of course, in a show as maddeningly difficult to get just right, even falling a little short can feel really awkward in places. It’s a great production. The fun is there. The music is there. The comedy is there (a LOT.) The drama...well...not quite as much. So much of the clever dichotomy of The Mikado is brought to the stage by the stage by Milwaukee Opera Theatre on a level that approaches real genius. Except for the drama.
With respect to the emotional melodrama, the real challenge here is to be able to balance comedy with drama and have them both present onstage: that’s not quite here. Ideally a brilliant production of The Mikado should be able to flit back and forth between the high drama of epic Wagnerian proportions to light and cheesy Jerry Lewis/Don Knottsian Punch and Judy slapstick and back again in the blink of an eye. This production isn’t quite that mercurial. So it's not perfect. Gilbert and Sullivan make that way too difficult to pull off. With all of its weird quirks, shortcomings and toweringly clever potentials, Gilbert and Sullivan’s creation needs to be outsmarted into being something that’s actually kind of good. Prior to seeing this production I couldn’t even imagine a GOOD production of the Mikado. Thanks to Milwaukee Opera Theatre, we’ve got a production of the Mikado that’s been confused into being great...even brilliant. The ensemble does such a great job of delivering a fun show that’s got a massive intensity of comedy.
In the course of the story, a corrupt, draconian political system is cleverly thwarted. The production allows us to feel real achievement in that, but without the darkness and in the weight of the drama that drives the plot, it doesn’t quite have the kind of depth that would lend it a kind of conceptual perfection. It’s great fun. As an adult, it’s a lot of fun to see a show that feels like a kid’s show for adults...that sort of thing could backfire in a HUGE way...thanks to Ponasik and company it doesn't. It glides quite gracefully. It’s exceedingly fun straight through.
It’s been a couple of years since the last time MOT did its Mikado. It’d be nice to see them do it again in another couple of years, but don’t take that chance. Don't take it for granted that this'll be around again in another couple of years. Take your inner child to this one now before it’s over.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s THE MIKADO runs through Mar. 26 at Next Act Theatre’s space on 255 S Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre online.