Monday, May 21, 2018
Stage

Review: Freefall's 'The Mikado' is silly but smart

"This isn't The Mikado I remember," a woman behind me said at intermission. As a matter of fact, I can recall several more traditional performances myself.

Freefall Theatre's production, on the other hand, is a hilarious, up-to-the-minute, gender-bending romp: Gilbert and Sullivan by way of Charles Ludlam, with a bit of the Three Stooges thrown in.

This is not to say the performers, who seem to be having the time of their lives, sell Sir Arthur Sullivan's music short. There is discipline behind the silliness, and Freefall's singing actors handle the intricate lines with aplomb, weaving and dancing about the stage all the while.

On the two nights I attended, the full-house audience ate it up.

The Mikado, as Freefall artistic director Eric Davis reminds us in a program note, isn't really about Japan. Premiered in 1885 — when Japanese art, crafts and clothing were all the rage in Britain and France — the setting provided librettist W.S. Gilbert a safe distance from which to skewer the stuffy pretensions of London. The Freefall production portrays it all: the bureaucratic double-speak (think of Lewis Carroll), the snobbery of the upper class (corrupt and mercenary all the while), the bloodthirsty and arbitrary absurdity of poorly drafted laws. Patrick Ryan Sullivan, as the emperor, gently strokes the hilt of his sword while listening to an account of a beheading; he seems in almost erotic reverie.

Current politicos and bugaboos also get their due. The operetta provides two songs whose catalogs of cultural annoyances can be updated, and the verses written by Davis and the ever-funny Matthew McGee hit some wonderful targets. I won't spoil the fun. Let's just say the name of a once-and-future governor, or so he hopes, rhymes with "I've Got A Little List," and another governor "known as Voldemort" is coupled with a candidate who always seems "a few votes short."

Do you have to know anything about Gilbert and Sullivan to enjoy this show? Absolutely not. These characters can speak for themselves.

Larry Alexander, as Pooh-Bah, the aristocratic holder of every local office, is a supercilious sycophant. "I can't help that I was born sneering," he says. By facial expression, gesture and snide remark, he's every prig you ever knew. Turns out he's rather a simpering coward, too. (Score an assist for Scott Daniel's brilliant makeup.)

Glenn Gover plays the Lord High Executioner, whose purposefully tremulous voice and clumsy entrance with an oversized ax immediately identify him as the sad clown, the butt of the show's plot. Gover makes good use of his rubbery face, and if he borrows a couple of mannerisms from Curly Howard, they do fit.

Dick Baker is boyishly charismatic as Nanki-Poo, the emperor's son masquerading as a street musician to escape one marriage and to pursue another. His tenor voice and the baritone of Robert Aronson as Pish-Tush are the strongest in the show.

Emanuel Carrero is a fluttering, eyelash-batting Yum-Yum, the blushing object of two men's desires. I suspect even some straight men in the audience found him/her appealing. In my second viewing, I noticed Carrero as one of the Japanese nobles in the opening chorus. Not the same character. I believe it's known as acting.

The other drag roles — if you don't count Pooh-Bah as a man in flowing skirt and lady's headdress — go to Gavin Esham and Mark Vincent Mansilungan as Yum-Yum's catty companions, and to Matthew McGee as the ugly old woman who wants to marry Nanki-Poo. In frightful orange wig and multi-colored split-toe socks, McGee would steal the show if the other performances weren't also so good.

The set and props are simple. But Davis's costume designs are colorfully elaborate and perfectly reinforcing of character. What color should Pooh-Bah's tight-fitting jacket be? Why, mustard yellow, of course.

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