A setting of splendor, an extravagantly-talented cast, marvelous music and deft dialogue combine to create The Lamplighters’ magnificent new “Mikado," coming to the Bankhead Theater August 25 and 26.
Arguably Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular work, the show abounds with lyrical melodies, witty ditties, and a stage full of memorable characters. Romantic hero Nanki-Poo, rich-voiced tenor Robert Vann, charms listeners at the outset with his lyrical ballad “A Wand’ring Minstrel I."
As the AWOL son of the Mikado, Japan’s Supreme Ruler, he has journeyed incognito to the little town of Titipu in hopes of marrying his beloved Yum-Yum, the winsome Moira McManus. This sweet-voiced soprano is the ward and fiancee of Ko-Ko, a cheap tailor who has just been promoted to the exalted rank of Lord High Executioner, a post he believes to be purely honorific.
This comforting illusion is shattered by a stern message from the Mikado, ordering him to carry out his “professional duty” or suffer dire consequences. In a panic to find a victim, he encounters Nanki-Poo, about to hang himself over his hopeless love for Yum-Yum, and persuades the lovesick youth to be executed instead. Nanki-Poo agrees only if he is allowed to marry Yum-Yum until his public beheading at the end of the month, and the desperate Ko-Ko agrees.
Veteran patter-singer F. Lawrence Ewing plays his first Ko-Ko with his usual comic flair, delighting the audience and this reviewer alike with his famous solos, from “I’ve Got A Little List," with its hysterical topical references, to the truly plaintive “Tit Willow." He is in top form mugging his way through the distasteful necessity of wooing Katisha, an elderly Court Lady of massive proportions.
Singing the formidable Katisha is Sonia Gariaeff, an operatic stand-out, whose big beautiful voice soars impressively over full chorus and orchestra in the first act finale. Initially enacting the role of a vengeance-seeking harridan, she is also able to present the inner pain she suffers, winning audience sympathy with her sad solo “Alone And Yet Alive."
Bemoaning her lonely spinsterhood with a sincere pathos, she touches the heart of her listeners in a rarely serious moment. Yet, as an accomplished comedienne, she can deliver devastatingly funny lines with a perfectly straight face. (A personal favorite, “I am an acquired taste," has become a family mantra.)
Aiding and abetting Ko-Ko’s schemes are two excellent singing actors: John Melis as Pish-Tush and Robby Stafford as Pooh-Bah. The latter, a haughty nobleman who boasts of his “pre-Adamite ancestry”, claims that he can trace his lineage back to a “proto-plasmal primordial atomic globule." Citing his enormous family pride he confides, “I can’t help it - I was born sneering.” Current financial news gave special irony to his famous line, “I’m not used to saying ‘How-de-do’ to anyone below the rank of stockbroker,” evoking appreciative laughter.
Stafford, last seen locally as the hero of Livermore Valley Opera’s “Marriage of Figaro," has a gorgeous operatic bass-baritone and a knack for broad comedy, a winning combination. His rich resonant voice stands out in duets and ensembles, while his expressive facial contortions perfectly highlight his pompous idiocy. Melis, who has played Dr. Bartolo in “Figaro”, also brings an operatic quality to Pish-Tush, especially in the tongue-twisting round “I Am So Proud . . .”
Balancing all this masculine vocal power is the silvery-voiced chorus of little Japanese schoolgirls. Newly graduated from their cloistered academic life, they are filled with cheerful anticipation of the wider world’s wonders. Fluttering and mincing across the stage in soft pastel kimonos, they seem like fragile butterflies among the men’s dark costumes, their joyous singing a sweet reminder of youthful optimism and bright promise. Company newcomer Molly Mahoney stands out as Yum-Yum’s companion Pitti-Sing in several ensembles, from the famous Wedding Madrigal to the sprightly “The Flowers That Bloom In The Spring, Tra-La."
Heading the cast literally and figuratively is the imposing William H. Neil as the Mikado. A company regular since 1965, he is still singing, acting, and mugging as magnificently as ever, and is particularly appreciated by long-time fans (including this reviewer) and newcomers alike. It is a tremendous delight to watch him describing the exquisitely painful punishments he has devised for society’s miscreants, and to see him gleefully relishing all the gory details of the town’s recent execution.
That is, until he notices his son’s name on the death certificate, a false document concocted to spare Ko-Ko the shame (and punishment) of admitting that he’s too tender-hearted to kill “anything or anyone”. Unfortunately this lie condemns him to death for the crime of “compassing the death of the heir-apparent." The Mikado reassures the terrified tailor that he bears him no malice for the supposed error, and brushes aside pleas for mercy by noting that “virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances.”
Since this show is, in fact, such a performance, all turns out well in the end, with a rousing chorus of celebration bringing the plot to a triumphant close. At this past weekend’s curtain, the audience rose with a long enthusiastic and well-deserved ovation. Cheers rang out for the entire cast, individual performers, and the terrific Lamplighter orchestra, led by long-time conductor Monroe Kanouse.
Entertainment doesn’t get much better than this. Celebrating an impressive 60-year anniversary, the Lamplighters, as always, “do it handsomely”. Hats off to a long succession of company directors, and to the indefatigable current leaders of this internationally-awarded troupe. Special applause for Jane Erwin Hammett, Stage Director of the current production that builds on past traditions and adds delightful new “business” for a rousing success.
Luckily for Valley music-lovers, this excellent musical will be playing in Livermore on August 25 and 26. For reservations, contact the Bankhead Theater at 925-373-6800 or visit www.bankheadtheater.org. Please join me in revisiting this perennial favorite in its sumptuous new setting. It is truly a gala finale to the summer’s entertainment schedule.