The Fort Worth Opera orchestra and conductor Joe Illick readied a smiling and enthusiastic opening night audience on Saturday for a light-hearted romp through the hilarious Gilbert and Sullivan take on Japan with a galvanizing overture to The Mikado, their most popular opera. All happy expectations were fulfilled big-time by a youthful and athletic cast in this bold, witty and joyously performed production. These first-rate singers also proved themselves accomplished actors and willing dancers, as well.
When the curtain goes up to the sounds of "If You Want to Know Who We Are," the gentlemen of Japan in the town of Titipu are not tricked out in kimonos and pigtails. Instead the entire male chorus is dressed in identical grey business suits with matching cell phones. Everyone laughed and applauded mid-song when these tightly choreographed office nerds sang of their popular image "on many a vase and jar, on many a screen and fan!" Behind them is set designer Richard Kagey’s giant neon grid that records the stock market soaring one moment, and becomes a row of skyscrapers the next. When the blood of the would-be executioner enters the song, the neon flashes a brilliant red—but always on a controlled grid. Marvelous!
Director John de los Santos has great fun throughout the production with a modern-day version of the veddy British humor and nutty plot driving the action. Right off we learn that the ruler of Japan, the imminent Mikado (Matthew Young) has declared that flirting is a crime punishable by beheading. To avoid losing everybody in Titipu, the next person to die, Ko-Ko (Lane Johnson), is named Lord High Executioner. So he can’t execute anybody 'till he executes himself. It so happens that the Mikado’s son Nanki-Poo (Logan Rucker) has run away from court disguised as a wandering minstrel so he doesn’t have to marry the ugly old widow Katisha (Meaghan Deiter). Now he’s returned to Titipu because he once fell in love with a girl named Yum-Yum (Jessica Cates), although it turns out she is now engaged to Ko-Ko. All good reasons to sing some unforgettable songs.
The fun of this very well-sung production is not only in the charming familiar melodies, but in the clever play on those lyrics by singers done up in Linda Cho’s ultra-hip costumes. It’s a hoot to see the usual dainty chorus of schoolgirls in short plaid skirts and pink, Hello Kitty backpacks. Yum-Yum and her two friends are tarted up cartoon-style with dyed hair and attitude to spare. Cates’ Yum-Yum is a full-throated soprano and a ruthless flirt, making all the latest hip-hop moves while singing the chaste lyrics of "Three Little Maids from School." They’re irresistible. And these little maids even bring in a Sumo wrestler in a fat suit to titillate the gals when Yum-Yum is to be married.
Rucker’s Nanki-Poo has plenty of swagger and a solid tenor voice in wooing his true love. He shakes his booty in fringed chaps early on, then shifts to Elvis whites to turn up the heat in Act II.
Johnson is practically perfect as the slightly sissy Lord High Executioner, a mild-mannered baritone with a witty delivery and the perfect elocution for "a cheap and chippy chopper on a big, black block!" Lane delivers the famous list of victims in "They’ll None of Them Be Missed" to cheers before, during and after the song. The updated list for this production includes telemarketers, and "those who use Twitter to whine and bitch"—especially about the use of amplification by the company. Following a mention of the Oprah network, he instantly grovels: "You know Oprah has a list—and you don’t want her pissed!" Lane cranks his character’s weasel factor up a notch in the hilarious song "On a Tree by a River a Little Tom-Tit" when he courts the terrifying Katisha to literally save his neck.
Gilbert and Sullivan certainly satirize the notion that love conquers all, but then they twist the plot and make it happen. Before the evening’s done we’ve seen some wonderfully imaginative costumes and inventive staging. The best single piece of business is the grand entrance of the Mikado and Katisha on matching Segways, buzzing stage right and left in widening circles.
You have to see it.
The Fort Worth Opera Festival 2011 continues with the following performances (and to read Mark Lowry's feature on the Festival, go here):
- Verdi's Il Trovatore: 7:30pm May 21 and June 3; 2pm May 29 (Bass Hall)
- Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado: 7:30pm May 27 and June 4; 2pm May 22 (Bass Hall)
- Handel's Julius Caesar: 8pm May 28; 2pm June 5 (Bass Hall)
- Philip Glass' Hydrogen Jukebox, in the Sanders Theatre at Fort Worth Community Arts Center: 7:30pm May 24-26, 29, June 1-2, 5; 2pm May 28 and June 4