Arts & Culture

Comedy and kimonos in ‘Mikado’

Staff Writer
Thursday, November 17, 2011

The 19th-century comedic writing pair Gilbert and Sullivan somehow make execution, broken hearts and an evil old lady funny in their opera “The Mikado.” The adaptation, directed by Chelsea Berry ’12, premieres tonight at 8 p.m. in Alumnae Hall.

The comedic opera quickly establishes the main dilemma — Yum-Yum (Gabriel Trilling ’12) and Nanki-Poo (Evan Strouss ’15) are in love, but due to convoluted complications they are unable to be together. Yum-Yum is engaged to Ko-Ko (Buck Greenwald ’15), the town’s high-executioner, and Nanki-Poo is actually the Mikado’s (Geraud Bablon ’14) son. He ran away when his father tried to force him to marry the old, ugly Katisha (Lizzie Stanton ’13).

The Mikado commands Ko-Ko to execute someone, so he strikes up a deal with the lovesick Nanki-Poo. Nanki-Poo can marry Yum-Yum if he agrees to be executed in one month. Nanki-Poo agrees, and a series of ridiculously hilarious events ensue, exasperated by the arrival of the Mikado himself.

Berry said she petitioned to direct the show because she found it fun and historically significant.

“There was a Japanese culture craze sweeping through Victorian London at the time, and it really kind of captures that,” she said of the 1885 opera. “‘The Mikado’ is a great way for looking at the assumptions Victorians have about Japanese culture and Eastern culture.”

Gilbert reportedly wrote “The Mikado” after seeing a piece of Kabuki theater at the 1885 Japanese Exhibition in London. Berry said she used Gilbert’s original inspiration for the piece in making production decisions.

“We incorporated a lot of aesthetic elements of Japanese Kabuki theatre,” she said. “We have traditional kumadori makeup so the different kinds of colors and patterns of people’s makeup tell you what kind of character they are.”

The production’s set also reflects traditional Japanese culture, incorporating two Shinto gates and a number of red lanterns. The red gates are adorned with a Japanese character meaning “big.”

Scenic Designer John Aurelio ’14 said he used the character because it is a common component of Japanese architecture, though the original meaning is “negligible” to the production.

“I wanted my set to convey a meeting ground and intersection between the royalty of Japan … and the normal villagers,” he said.

The set design’s simplicity worked perfectly for the production. It gave the characters plenty of space to move around, which is important in such an over-the-top comedy. It also did not detract from the character’s beautifully intricate costumes. The kimonos were hand-made by Costume Designer Sarah Lewis ’12, who effectively revealed each character’s personality through her costume choices.

Pooh-Bah’s (Matthew Jaroszewicz ’12) kimono was one of the best, really capturing his obnoxious, pompous personality with the flashing costume.

“The idea was to get as many shiny fabrics as I could and put them into one costume,” Lewis said. “It’s supposed to be over-the-top.”

 Jaroszewicz’s performance was also fantastic. His huge personality lit up the stage with his dramatic gestures and booming voice, and his skilled enunciation made his solos and duets some of the most enjoyable.

Despite Jaroszewicz’s strong voice, some of the other actors struggled with projection, especially during group songs. Occasionally, the orchestra overpowered the singers, and during the Act I and the Act II finales, when all the actors were on stage, the timing was slightly off. Though the actors were supposed to be singing in unison, some moved slightly quicker or slower through the songs than others. The combination of poor enunciation and off-beat singing made it difficult to discern the lyrics of these numbers.

Some of the supporting actors lacked emotion and confidence while singing, making their performances bland. As a result, the choreography looked sloppy and did not contribute much to the hilarity of the opera.

But during solos and duets, the projection issues were not as much of a problem, and many of the leading actors, including Strouss and Greenwald, had powerful and hilarious performances.

The dialogue did not suffer from the same projection issues as did the musical numbers, and throughout the play, the actors delivered their jokes with an appropriate balance of seriousness and ridiculousness. Occasionally, the performers would break the fourth wall and address the audience, a hilarious addition to the play.

Though the performance struggled with a few group numbers, “The Mikado” had some very strong moments, including the musical numbers “I am so Proud” in Act I and “Here’s a How-de-do!” in Act II. The Mikado’s Act II entrance, where he was carried down the aisle to the stage, was also appropriately dramatic and very funny, especially as the actors started tripping over each other to show they were nervous about the Mikado’s arrival.

Cast members were very positive about the outcome of the dress rehearsal, though they agreed they need to work on some blocking and dialogue issues. Trilling also said more practice with the orchestra would be helpful.

“The Mikado” continues Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.

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