Story: At an English gentlemen’s club in the 1920s, members enjoy the good life, swapping stories, smoking cigars and imbibing the fine beverages in their establishment. Into their midst appears a “wandering minstrel” named Nanki-Poo, who arrives in search of his love, a young woman named Yum-Yum.
He learns from a lord called Pish-Tush that Yum-Yum is engaged to Ko-Ko, a tailor who was condemned to death for the offense of flirting, but instead was granted a reprieve and appointed Lord High Executioner in the town of Titipu instead. All of its officials resigned at Ko-Ko’s appointment except Pooh-Bah, who has assumed all of the other titles and their salaries.
Ko-Ko learns that the emperor of Japan, known as the Mikado, has deemed there must be an execution in Titipu within a month, but Ko-Ko is a non-violent sort. Ko-Ko is informed that he himself is next in line to be executed, but he isn’t keen about that. He also learns that Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum love each other, so he offers Nanki-Poo a proposition: Marry Yum-Yum and then be executed a month later, at which time Ko-Ko will marry the widowed Yum-Yum.
This sounds OK to everyone until Katisha, an older woman betrothed to the unwilling Nanki-Poo, arrives and vows revenge. When the Mikado himself comes to town, he says he is searching for his son, the missing Nanki-Poo. This complicates Ko-Ko’s life greatly, not to mention a law he has discovered that says that an executed man’s wife must be buried alive next to him, something that does not please Yum-Yum.
Ko-Ko, Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum are between a rock and a hard place. But, with the aid of Pish-Tush and Yum-Yum’s sister Pitti-Sing, they come up with an improbable, last-ditch effort to save one and all.
Highlights: Union Avenue Opera has opened its 22nd season with its first production of The Mikado, the most successful of the 14 operatic collaborations from the 19th century of librettist William Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. An updated libretto with many topical references combines with Sullivan’s light-hearted music and several amusing performances to make this version of The Mikado a refreshing and humorous presentation.
Other Info: The Mikado has been performed virtually continuously in productions around the world since its premiere in London in 1885. It succeeds as a humorous satire on English society in the Victorian era of the late 19th century, although its setting in a fictional Japanese town brings with it the weight of negative stereotypes.
For that reason, Union Avenue Opera has moved the setting to the Roaring Twenties in an “English gentlemen’s club.” Nonetheless, it’s confusing at first because all of the characters sport silly names that hearken back to those stereotypes, along with references to Japan. It helps that costume designer Teresa Doggett attires the players in the finery of the ‘20s era in the case of Nanki-Poo, Yum-Yum, Pish-Tush et al or the tacky garb favored by the buffoonish Ko-Ko.
The operetta works best when viewed as a highly effective satire of the restrictive sexual mores of Victorian society; thus, ‘flirting’ is a capital offense punishable by death. The updated libretto used by UAO, presumably by director Eric Gibson although not strictly credited in the program (as far as I can tell), is witty and markedly funny in its topical references, which are used sparingly enough to maintain their humor.
It’s doubtful that Gibson is responsible for the references to St. Louis area culture, since his bio has nary a reference to local ties. So, perhaps conductor and artistic director Scott Schoonover, supertitle translation editor Philip Touchette or others collaborated. In any event, the result is delightful, lampooning national references such as Donald Trump as well as area villain Stan Kroenke, Webster Groves and other familiar names.
Acting and singing are equally engaging in Gibson’s breezy, upbeat interpretation. Andy Papas delivers his lines with splendid comic timing, and his smooth baritone brings polish to the witty words of Ko-Ko. Even his short, portly stature plays into the comedy, especially when compared with the ‘large’ presence of the imposing Zachary James as The Mikado or Melissa Parks as Katisha.
The latter pairs wryly with Papas in a physical way, reminiscent of Margaret Dumont and Groucho Marx in so many of The Marx Brothers’ comedies, while her strong mezzo-soprano works quite nicely on any number of songs. James shows his own abilities adapting his gangly, extended physique (he originated the role of Lurch in The Addams Family on Broadway) to the work’s comedy.
Drake Dantzler is a dashing and earnest Nanki-Poo, well-matched by Karina Brazas’ Yum-Yum. Brazas delightfully conveys Yum-Yum as a clever young woman who finds herself to be “more lovely than any other woman,” while her friends help her prepare for her hastily arranged wedding.
Elise LaBarge showcases her sense of comedy as well as a beautiful voice as the clever Pitti-Sing, and E. Scott Levin is consistently amusing as the always opportunistic and frequently unprepared Pooh-Bah. Nicholas Ward and Gina Malone add to the festivities as the noble lord Pish-Tush and Yum-Yum’s other sister Peep-Bo, respectively.
Schoonover conducts a spirited reading of the score by the inspired UAO orchestra. Gibson’s direction makes good use of Jeff Behm’s stately scenic design of an elegant English club, well illuminated with Joseph Clapper’s lighting design and benefiting as well from Laura Sroska’s props.
Union Avenue Opera’s initial production of the venerable and perennially popular The Mikado succeeds by focusing on Gilbert’s pointed satire of English society and Sullivan’s lively music, entertaining even in these ‘enlightened’ times.
Opera: The Mikado
Company: Union Avenue Opera
Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 North Union Blvd.
Dates: July 15, 16
Tickets: $30 to $55; contact 361-2881 or unionavenueopera.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb