by Gail M. Burns, June 2007
Ah, The Mikado. That wholesome, fun-filled family show about decapitation... You know, even though I know every note and every word of it and have directed it twice I still can’t tell you the plot off the top of my head. That is because a) the plot doesn’t matter and b) the plot really isn’t very good. But The Mikado is wonderful and the Town Players are presenting it as their 85th anniversary production.
Eighty-five years makes the Town Players of Pittsfield one of the oldest continuously performing theatre groups of any kind in the whole world! That is something to celebrate and says a great deal about the grassroots of the “Cultural Berkshires” which existed long before those musicians from Boston and theatre folks from New York City starting bringing “art” to us poor rural rubes in the mid-20th century.
And this particular production is directed and designed by the legendary Robert Boland, a living monument to the importance of the arts to the year-round residents of this area, and staged in the Robert Boland Theatre at Berkshire Community College. Boland was in attendance at opening night, looking handsome as ever, and I am pleased to report that he got the first piece of the celebratory cake at intermission.
So this production is about something greater than what is happening on the stage.
Is this the best Mikado I have ever seen? No, but it is also far from the worst, and it is important to remember that I have seen a lot more Mikados than the average bear. I said earlier that the plot wasn’t very good, and it isn’t. It is all swiss-cheesy – full of holes – and peppered with characters who weren’t important two minutes ago who suddenly become vital to the plot for no apparent reason. But it makes more sense than the plots of most grand opera, and it is a very grand operetta, filled with some of Gilbert’s cleverest lyrics and Sullivan’s most soaring tunes and orchestrations*. If a community theatre company like Town Players can’t have good fun presenting it, what can they do?
The opening night performance started off weak. While I am on the record as despising over-miked productions, these are amateur singers and I would rather hear them miked than not hear them acoustically. My “date” and I christened the opening chorus the Inaudible Gentlemen of Japan and I was sorely tempted to storm the stage a la Mama Rose bellowing “Sing out, Louise!”
Actually no one is named Louise in The Mikado. The characters who needed to sing out were Michael Woolf’s Ko-Ko and occasionally Jonathan Slocum’s Pish-Tush.
It is one thing to have a weak male chorus (and the female chorus is only slightly stronger here) but when you can’t hear the character man, that’s trouble. Given Woolf’s poor projection, I would have moved him far downstage for his solo numbers, but Boland often has him quite far upstage, behind both chorus and orchestra.
Until late in the first act this performance was dragging and in serious trouble. Only Matt Passetto’s strong tenor as Nanki-Poo and Matt Barbas’ hilarious turn as Pooh-Bah kept things from tanking altogether. Poorly written “modern” lyrics for the patter song I’ve got a Little List, followed by equally awkward encores, unrequested by the audience I might add, sung by a barely audible singer do not inspire hope in a Savoyard’s heart for a glorious finale.
The Three Little Maids – Yum-Yum (Ann Marie Desautelle), Pitti-Sing (Monica Bliss), and Peep-Bo (Jessica A. Guzzo) – buoyed things up a bit. These three ladies brought nicely trained voices and a burst of much needed energy to the stage.
But miraculously Woolf hit his comic stride and things began to gel with the popular trio I Am So Proud. Again, the audience didn’t ask for the encores, but this time they enjoyed them.
The arrival of Katisha in the Act I finale was a pivotal event for this production, for the powerful presence and stunning voice of Kara Powers Demler created new problems while improving the musical quality of the evening considerably.
Much as I enjoyed hearing Demler sing Katisha, I did not enjoy the interpretation of the character she and Boland had developed. Last week an overly sympathetic portrayal of Jud Fry in Oklahoma! tipped the audience’s loyalty the wrong way, and here Demler’s presentation of a heart-breaking and heart-broken Katisha as a truly wronged tragic heroine just screwed up the whole thing. Also, why was she made costumed so beautifully and made to look better than Yum-Yum? “Oh, fool! to shun delights that never cloy!”
I am the first to grumble about Gilbert’s repeated ridicule of middle-aged women, but while Katisha is, and must be, a ridiculous caricature of a menopausal harridan, she has some of Gilbert’s most sympathetic lyrics, which Sullivan has set beautifully. Demler renders them meticulously and her voice and stage presence are so overwhelmingly professional in a sea of amateurs that she appears to be the star of the show, the person about whom we should care the most, and that is wrong.
But Woolf was now on a roll, catching up with the comic energy Barbas had inaugurated, and the beautifully staged arrival of The Mikado (Walter Moore) brought the second act to a much higher level of achievement than the first. Moore is a real Savoyard who understands how to sing and act the delicate Victorian fun these two masters created. I loved his exit on the line: “I'm really very sorry for you all, but it's an unjust world, and virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances.”
Virtue, talent, and energy combined to make for that glorious finale of which I had despaired early in Act I. As the curtain fell on the residents of Titipu singing and dancing in their artless Japanese way, clad in Boland’s colorful costumes, I thought “That was a good community theatre Mikado." And I went home happy.
The point of community theatre is not present slick professional perfection, but to give average men and women a chance to experience the joy of performing great theatre and music, and allowing their friends and neighbors the chance to join them in the fun by attending the performances and encouraging them with their applause.
So, this wasn’t a perfect Mikado. It was a perfect celebration of community and creativity and longevity and loyalty.
The Mikado presented by the Town Players of Pittsfield will be performed June 14-16 at 8 p.m. and June 17 at 2 p.m. in the Robert Boland Theatre in the Koussevitsky Arts Center at Berkshire Community College, 1305 West Street, Pittsfield. Tickets are $18 ($15 for seniors, students and groups of 10 or more.) The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call 413-443-9279 for tickets and information.
(* And its not even my favorite Gilbert & Sullivan operetta! That honor belongs to the obscure and seldom-seen Princess Ida.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007