|Rob McLean, Matt Kahler & Ezekiel Sulkes in the Chicago production of "The Mikado"|
If you want to know who they are, they're not gentlemen of Japan, nor are they really oafs, but The Hypocrites from Chicago in their current production of Gilbert and Sullivan's 1885 “The Mikado”, now at ART's Oberon in Cambridge. This version, not so much updated as upended, has been Adapted and Directed (and “Reimagined”) by the company's Founding Artistic Director Sean Graney for his Chicago-based troupe that most recently brought “Pirates of Penzance” to town in the spring of 2013. In their hands, this “Mikado” (sans the subtitle “or the Town of Titipu”) is a frenetically paced eighty minutes of folk/pop operetta, either zany, hip or twee, depending on one's tolerance for tampering. Perhaps the most obvious change is that there's no mention of Japan. But no matter. The original was never about Japan either, but a thinly veiled jab at the Victorian era's preoccupation with all things Oriental and the British class system. There are some songs missing and of course the orchestrations differ; the singing actors are the orchestra as well.
There are ten performers in all, with some doubling roles. The basic love story remains intact, with Yum-Yum (Emily Casey) in love with Nanki-Poo (Shawn Pfautsch), the son of the Mikado, (Casey again!), though she's betrothed to Ko-Ko (Rob McLean), the Lord High Executioner, which is a tad inconvenient. Pooh-Bah (Matt Kahler), Lord High Everything Else, and the noble lord Pish-Tush (Ryan Bourque) are on hand to complicate matters further, as well as Koko's two other wards, Pitti-Sing (Lauren Vogel) and Peep-Bo (Dana Omar), a couple of mice (Doug Pawlik and Erik Schroeder) and a barker (Kate Carson-Groner). And, of course, there's the aged Katisha (Pfautsch again!), also in love with Nanki-Poo (which may be the definitive example of narcissism, if you think about it). The whole company is multi-talented, with standouts being Casey's singing of “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze”, and McLean's bittersweet “Tit-Willow”. The rainbow of colorful costumes by Alison Sipes, Set Design by Michael Smallwood, Lighting Design by Heather Gilbert and Sound Design by Kevin O'Donnell, add to the circus-like atmosphere. The exhuberant Choreography is by Kate Spelman, and the Music Direction is by Andra Velis Simon. If there's a nit to pick, it might be that there's a bit too much soleil in this cirque for some folks, having dispensed with some of the original satirical bite. Mortified rupture! There still remain countless puns (most attributable to the original text), including one about Katisha/Nanki-Poo being currently abroad that must be heard in context.
You might consider this the ultimate stand-up comic routine, since most of the audience does just that. And one word of caution: there will be balloons. Lots of them. As for any qualms about tinkering with the text, one has a little list, but they'll none of them be missed. This production aims not to appease the purists among us, but to appeal in the broadest performing style to the broadest possible audience including children of all ages. It succeeds quite entertainingly at that. As the original creative team of W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan themselves might well have put it: Nicely executed.