This production by Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Victoria is to be viewed through the lens of community theatre, where productions are undertaken for the genuine love of the art form. It relies on a core of dedicated enthusiasts to keep it going. This is a largely traditional production of The Mikado with an introductory scene which sets the action in the nineteenth century world of Gilbert and Sullivan as the original production is devised and mounted. We see the negotiations and conflict between the composers and their producer Richard D’Oyly Carte and the eventual beginning of rehearsals as the overture begins. So instead of staring at the curtains while it plays, we see the cast and crew arrive and busy themselves in preparation of the show. Act one has the performers in period street clothes with prop canes and hats and as the performance progresses, the set, lighting and costumes become more developed. By the time we hit interval, the transformation from the bare stage to the town of Titipu and its citizens is complete. This is an effective way of setting the scene, but it could have been done in half the time with much less business and fewer props.
The Mikado is one of the most popular pieces of musical theatre even today despite premiering in 1885. The musical score is what keeps it running eternally somewhere in the world. This piece has been a staple of amateur theatre groups, schools and opera companies for more than 130 years. The orchestra under the baton of Timothy John Wilson plays the score well and keeps the tempi necessary to make the comedy work. It’s disappointing that the pit is covered in the Darebin Arts Centre, as I’m sure most audience members enjoy the sight of a live orchestra. However the sound is clear and well balanced both musically and vocally with a combination of various types of stage and body amplification.
The cast looked like they were enjoying themselves and there was a genuine sense of ensemble, which is essential to keep the pace going and the story coherent. Musically this show is one hit after another. Every tune is familiar even if you’ve never seen it before. After the opening men’s chorus of “If you want to know who we are” we meet the handsome hero of the piece Nanki-Poo, actually the son of the Emperor or Mikado of Japan who is on the run from his father’s court disguised as a wandering musician. Played delightfully by young tenor Cameron Sibly, Nanki-Poo is in love with Yum-Yum, sung by soprano Sofia Laursen Habel. They make a perfect couple of course and you just know that everything’s going to get in the way of their happiness. This is a strong pairing of two well-matched voices; both singing with restraint, clarity and taste in the many group pieces.
Nanki-Poo is in hiding from Katisha, an elderly lady of his father’s court who has claimed that Nanki-Poo flirted with her, and under the Emperor’s flirting law, he must marry her or be beheaded. Katisha is played with great relish by young contralto Jordan Kahler. This is one of the best vocal performances of this role I’ve seen. This is a voice of real quality with a rich strong tone throughout her range. This role is a demanding one and can expose breaks in the voices of even the most experienced singers. No problem for Kahler; the bottom register is strong and clear on even the lowest parts and the top notes bright and assured. I’d like to have seen her in a better costume and wig, but with a voice like hers, it hardly matters.
There are some fine performances in this reimagining of The Mikado with Luke Belle as Ko-Ko, a former tailor promoted to the exalted position of Lord High Executioner. This is the pivotal role in The Mikado. Ko-Ko has to be a great comic, singer and actor and Luke Belle does a marvellous job. He is a great showman and his timing is terrific. His rendition of “I’ve got a Little List” is very funny with many modern references to social media and current events which are traditional in G&S patter songs. With a mere tailor promoted by the people to Lord High Executioner, everyone else was too proud to serve under him. As a result, all of the other official roles are taken by Poo-bah who becomes the Lord High Everything Else. This role is comic gold, with the delightfully corrupt bureaucrat given full flight by GSOV stalwart Gianfranco Filonzi. This is not his first turn as Poo-Bah and it is clearly one he and the audience enjoys. Completing Ko-Ko’s cohort of characters is Pish-Tush, this time played as a policeman by baritone Paul Tooby. He is particularly effective in the ensemble pieces throughout.
Ko-Ko has three female wards who we meet in the famous trio “Three Little Maids from School” Among them is Yum-Yum, the beloved of Nanki-Poo. Sadly she is to be wedded to Ko-Ko and this is where all the trouble starts. The other two wards are Peep-Bo played by Bonnie Keynes and Pitti-Sing by Melanie O’Brien. They are both strong singers and it was refreshing to see these two characters so well drawn for a change. I was impressed how director Andrew McGrail has given the cast the freedom to embrace their characters and let them develop more depth than they normally would. Melanie O’Brien’s beautifully-placed mezzo-soprano voice is really well used here and her comic ensemble pieces with Belle, Tooby, and Filonzi in Act two were very strong.
Rounding out the principal cast is Andrew Alesi as The Mikado himself. The part was sung well enough but the staging and choreography used in his big number “a more humane Mikado or “to let the punishment fit the crime” was rather peculiar. The action included strange leaping, which caused his hat to fall off a number of times and did nothing to help the song. A song which is very witty, and full of typical Gilbert genius. There were a number of times where dance moves and actions were poorly timed and under-rehearsed, but I’m aware that it can sometimes be the nature of this kind of production.
Overall, this telling of The Mikado has a lot to recommend it, not least of which Is the timeless score, the memorable songs and some really terrific singing.
Jon Jackson reviewed The Mikado, performed by GSOV (Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Victoria) on Thursday July 19th 2018. The season concludes on Saturday August 4th at the Mount Beauty Community Centre, Kiewa Crescent, Mount Beauty, Victoria.