Pacific Opera Project (POP) once again delivers a high energy, highly entertaining, modernized production of classic opera. This time it’s Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado,which opened at the Porticos Art Space in Pasadena for the first weekend and moves to the Santa Monica Miles Playhouse for the second two. Another successful collaboration of Josh Shaw, director and designer, and Stephen Karr, musical director, along with costume designer Maggie Green, this production continues to find amusing and creative ways of updating scenarios, costumes and dialogue.
Determined to bring opera to the masses, POP works with low budgets, limited rehearsals, and many new young artists. They update the characters, costumes and even the lyrics to catch the ear of today’s audiences. Karr always has a brilliant (and good-looking too) group of musicians to play with. In the production at the Porticos where there is no orchestra pit, he has cleverly arranged the musicians in a train across downstage and it worked beautifully.
The Mikado was written and first performed in the end of the 19th Century to skewer the British royalty.Th POP version includes some very clever additions to the lyrics in which fun is poked at everything from Westside Yoginis to Time Warner Cable. (The wish that Time Warner workers could end up in a continuous loop of robot call waiting was very popular with the audience.) Kelsey Namara is credited with those additional lyrics.
Most of the main characters have alternating casts so these comments are about those who performed on opening night.
Not all the performers are newbies: Adelaide Sinclair, who plays the obligatory Gilbert and Sullivan 'fat ugly contralto", (as described in the late Anna Russell’s parody of the opera) is a highly accomplished and world renown singer who has performed the part over 200 times. Phil Meyer as alternating Poo-Bah has been a principal in nearly every POP production. It’s easy to see why he is in demand: his character fulfills more than a half dozen different roles and he is able to quickly switch from one to another in style and tone. All is done with the speed and alacrity demanded by the Gilbert and Sullivan style.
In fact it is that very quick style coupled with the use of unusual and sometimes made-up words that often make it difficult to understand the lyrics being sung, especially when the chorus is singing - or several characters are singing together. Still they are entertaining – those “Japanese gentlemen” twirling their fans!
This is where one can really separate the experienced performers – those who not only deliver their character and hit their notes, and who you can actually understand their every word. Although you can generally understand what is going on in the scenes, when you really grasp the words, it becomes that much more enjoyable. The masters not only of their art but in delivering this specific style are clearly Sinclair and Meyers, as well as Julia Aks as alternating Pitti-Sing. When these characters are onstage it is pure delight. Aks' improving with Elizabeth Rigby Jones as Peep-Bo is also fun to watch.
James Schindler as alternating Ko-Ko is a great and fun character to watch with a lovely voice. Kyle Patterson as alternating Nanki-Poo and Samantha Geraci-Yee as alternating Yum Yum are beautiful-sounding strong, lilting tenor and soprano leads. Their singing styles are very romantic. Perhaps a bit of crispness could be added in order to deliver the Gilbert and Sullivan humorous punch.
Michael Bannett and Joseph von Buhler who play conjoined twins Pish-Tush were letter-perfect not only in singing but in every action performing as a single body. Not only did they finish each other’s thoughts, but also they used their arms in perfect harmony.
Perhaps one of the most exciting moments is the highly anticipated entrance in the second act of the Mikado. Matthew Ian Welch in a shiny Nazi-esque Asian uniform appears as 12 feet high (perched on another man’s shoulders under his coat.) (His appearance and kookiness reminded me of the great Dick Shawn in the Mel Brooks film The Producers.) Small in stature, when he sings with his great energy and clarity, dances and cracks his whip, he zings the show up to its highest level. Hilarious and charismatic, we hope to see more of him on stage.
Congratulations must be shared with Maggie Green, resident costume designer. The Mikado costume and especially all the cute little girl costumes are pure eye candy. They are done in the style of “harajuko” a fashion look from a suburb of Tokyo in which teens mix the traditional costumes of Japan with hip Western looks. All the girls with their bright wigs, bright short crinoline skirts, neon fans, bright tights and colorful sneakers were adorable. And Yum Yum’s wedding dress is brilliant: white lace with kimono sleeves and the same mini crinoline skirt on the bottom.
All in all POP's The Mikado is sure to create many more fans for a new and thriving opera company! It makes you wonder what Shaw and Karr might come up with if given all the resources of a large opera company.
Photos by Martha Benedict
Georja Umano is an actress and animal advocate.
September 6-8 at Porticos Art Space, 2033 E. Washington Blvd. in Pasadena, CA
September13-22 at the Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd. in Santa Monica, CA 90403.
Sunday performances at 4:00 PM, all others at 8:00 PM; Pre-show lecture one hour before the performance.)
General Admission: $30; Student/Senior: $20