By Joel Applegate
Opening night disaster! The whole cast is stuck on a broken-down bus in Pocatello. Yeah, that’s in Idaho. The director of Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical, The Mikado, James Arrington, had to stand up in front of a full house on Opening Night and make the dread announcement. A cell phone rings. After he’d already cautioned us to turn off our phones, an audience member had to break the news that the offending device was his own. What gall! Arrington took the call – with us in the room. The announcement? What every audience hates: the show can’t be saved. The bus is busted. But the performance will go on anyway with the Understudies in every role.
I was so disappointed I considered leaving. I’d come back the next night. After all, a reviewer wants to do the fair thing and give the cast and crew their optimum chance to shine.
What followed was a high-wire act that in averting disaster, shattered the “fourth wall” and in fact masterfully turned The Mikado into an enchanted, hilarious high farce. Let us remember, this classic, which premiered in1885, is after all, considered Gilbert and Sullivan’s best achievement in satire.
The conceit of this production is so cleverly realized that to give away too much would be to rob you of some great surprises. As the show progresses in spectacular costumes by Allen Stout and equally over-the-top bad wigs, I slowly began to get the sense (I’m a bit slow in the up-take sometimes) that the whole cast was completely in on a joke. Self-aware as understudies, they knew they were winging it. Even as the set and the sound conspired to sabotage their efforts, the cast trooped on determined to finish this thing – or have it finish them.
Chase Grant as the Shogun showed himself game to sacrifice himself to the cause. He soldiered on with a subtly hilarious mix of befuddlement and smirk while other actors fed him his lines from behind their fans.
The presentational technique of old style theatrics is lampooned throughout, especially in the person of Nanki-Poo, played by James Bounous in the male lead. Polished in his melodramatic, exaggerated self-parody, he gave us a lesson in camp performance art that was a running riot. Although he sometimes sounded a little thin at the top, Bounous possesses a beautiful tenor voice that is always a pleasure to hear.
The object of Nanki-Poo’s ardor, our sweet Yum-Yum, finds herself, in a crucial moment, covering a wardrobe malfunction with her ample fan. Played by Amanda Maxwell, this is an “understudy” both shy and sly, with an effortless soprano that is clear and pure. Messrs G & S may well have cast her in the original role.
Regan Whimpey as Pooh-Ba gave us a melodic baritone that demonstrated great support and vocal control throughout the complex score with which he was entrusted. Excellent job.
Kyle Oram, as Ko-Ko, plays the Lord High Executioner as if in spite of himself. Oram delivers bravado, smarm and remorse in equal measure, showing himself a very clever actor. Like Whimpey, he handles complex vocals expertly.
Julie Suazo, as Katisha, in claiming Nanki-Poo for her own, confidently imposed her presence on the chorus threatening them with the Emperor’s wrath. Though her voice is strong, and the acting sure, in her first number, I felt she struggled a bit to stay on the right pitch. But she sure got her imposing presence right. I suppose wearing a towering wig measuring several cubic yards (no mean feat by the way) provides an able assist.
Another great vocal performance was given to us by Kaitlyn Dahl as Peep-Bo. She has a concise contralto with a tone that carries a pleasing weight, blending perfectly with the recorded score and making me wish she had been featured more.
This entire cast shows themselves nimble and adept. They made every word of the important lyrics clearly understood. The choreography by music director, Rob Moffat, doing double duty, is sensibly apt, but dared to be deliciously dingy. This small chorus (i.e., everyone in the cast in most cases) is one of the strongest ensembles I’ve seen. They winked at the action and I had a truly palpable sense that I was watching improvisation. The whole production shimmers with a sense of never knowing what would happen next!
As they did in most of their work, Gilbert and Sullivan included many asides to the topical culture of their time. But UVU masterfully updated the “Not Missed” musical number with references to “Obama optimists”, “Spanish speakers” and “religionists” that included a pointed shout-out to BYU. This number managed to diss most disparate factions of the populace. There was a guffaw in every line.
As the audience enters, they see the proscenium covered in beautiful Japanese screens, with projections on the wing fronts. Along with the prelude music, a good mood is set. And then the screen opens. It made me take in my breath. Steven Purdy’s set is wonderful. Beautiful and interesting to look at, the raked stage features embedded platforms, one of which extends out. This is a professional level of superb stagecraft and design, befitting any opera. Unfortunately, not all sight lines for this configuration at the Noorda are perfect for this show. If you sit either too far right or left in the house, parts of some great moments might be missed.
The Noorda Theater at UVU is a beautiful space. For The Mikado, they have mounted a fantastic lobby display of kimonos. And a helpful note or two is posted there to familiarize patrons with some British terms and expressions heard in the play.
I’ll admit I’ve never been terribly familiar with Gilbert and Sullivan, but this production makes me want to be. What is Mikado‘s secret of longevity? Wonderful music that remains enchanting after 128 years. The melodies are tuneful and hummable. The harmonies of the chorus in this production are like an expansive breath of sweet air, full and right, and the sardonic lyrics give audiences a jolt of recognition.
UVU’s production is an absolute delight, both topical and timeless at once. Remember: The Mikado is SATIRE. Nothing so sums up this cast’s machinations as Poo-Ba’s line: “Choose your fiction, and I’ll endorse it.” Hanging on to their wigs for dear life, UVU’s cast and crew punted. And scored big.
Performances are April 11 through13, and April 15 through the 20th at 7:30 pm. Matinees at 2 pm on April 13th and 20th. Just eleven performances -See it while you can!
General Admission: $15.00
Noorda Theater at Utah Valley University
800 West University Parkway
Orem, UT 84058
(801) 863-8000 – Info number, ask for School of Arts, or Noorda Theater Box Office.
James Arrington, Chase Grant, James Bounous, Amanda Maxwell, Kaitlyn Dahl, Regan Whimpey, Kyle Oram, Allen Stout, Steven Purdy, Julie Suazo, Rob Moffat