Lyric Opera of Chicago
by W. S. Gilbert & Arthur Sullivan
By Lori Dana
If it’s an operetta, it must be holiday time at Lyric. This year’s musical sugarplum is that beloved Victorian chestnut, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Given a gorgeous art deco makeover by British designer Mark Thompson, this version is set in 1922.
The minimal, graphic sets are the perfect backdrop for Lyric’s marvelous chorus, used to maximum effect in the staging, which with its Busby Berkeley style scale and precision choreography also reflects the 20’s theme.
The production opens on a series of huge gilt-edged red screens that open to reveal a gaggle of bowler clad Japanese gentlemen. (Cleverly crafted pops of “Mikado red” create visual accents throughout the production). The first number introduces us to the story of the characters that drive the piece: Nanki-Poo the wandering minstrel (Toby Spence), his love Yum Yum (Andriana Chuchman) and Ko-Ko (Neal Davies), the tailor who has been saved from execution by being promoted to Lord High Executioner.
Now Ko-Ko is free to marry his ward, Yum Yum. But she loves Nanki-poo. Oh, HOW will the two young lovers manage to get together?
If only the lovely brevity of this Mikado’s production design was reflected in Gilbert & Sullivan’s musical numbers. We love the rollicking choruses. Chuchman’s charming Yum Yum is quite captivating. Young Mr. Spence’s soaring tenor, wonderful physicality and rock star looks are exciting. Pooh Bah (Andrew Shore) is hilarious.
And stars Neal Davies, James Morris (The Mikado) and Stephanie Blythe (Katisha) are amazing. Even maestro Sir Andrew Davis gets into the act. Lyric has done everything possible to make this production fresh and compelling, both visually and musically, but your humble reviewer finds the overworked humor of G & S tiresome and Ko-Ko’s number in act 1 (with a stanza rewritten to plug Lyric productions) quickly turns from amusing to an exercise in questionable taste.
That said, there are quite a number of heads bobbing in time to the lovely music and audience members singing along with their beloved Mikado. For many, it’s a perennial favorite although admittedly not one for your humble reviewer. Still, this Lyric production has many things to recommend in it including top vocal talent, marvelous acting, gorgeous lighting, costumes and sets (whose 1920’s style are particularly effective in the magnificent art deco setting of the Civic Opera House).
As always, the flawless music of the Lyric Opera orchestra and chorus carry the entire production on their very capable shoulders. If you love Gilbert & Sullivan then this production is a must-see and even if you don’t, you will still find much to marvel at. For G & S in the 21st Century, this is as good as it gets.