Even folks usually immune to the charms of Gilbert and Sullivan -- such people are to be viewed with sincere pity (if not a little wariness) -- may find it hard to resist Young Victorian Theatre Company's exuberant production of "The Mikado."
Whatever ragged edges may crop up on the vocal and orchestral fronts, along with a few theatrical misfires, this staging at the Bryn Mawr School reflects well on Baltimore's intrepid champion of the G&S canon.
The boundless melodic invention of Sullivan's score emerges engagingly, especially in the brilliant Act 1 finale, which, for structural ingenuity and expressive intensity, can hold its own against anything by Donizetti.
And the production effectively honors Gilbert's nutty plot about thwarted love and governmental lunacy in Titipu (the Japanese trappings do not disguise for a moment the British targets). Gilbert still seems remarkably ahead of his time in how he manages to ...
get laughs even from talk of decapitation and being buried alive.
The insertion of contemporary references into the text, a longtime Young Vic tradition, strikes me as cleverer than usual this year, and not so awkward or intrusive, either. (How could BGE possibly go unmentioned?)
Three performers nearly walk away with the show.
As Ko-Ko, the tailor-turned-Lord High Executioner whose plans to marry the dishy Yum-Yum go awry, Colin Adams-Toomey is a winning presence, fully and deeply into character from the get-go.
He delivers lines with the assurance of a seasoned comic actor, producing all sorts of droll inflections. He relies perhaps a little too much on fluttery hands, but his supple physicality adds much to the performance.
If Adams-Toomey isn't the strongest singer in the cast, he knows how to sculpt a phrase -- the baritone's account of "Tit-willow" is particularly winning.
Peter Tomaszewski, as the perpetually self-conflicted Pooh-Bah (Lord High Everything Else), likewise reveals quite a flair for comedy. He puts his warm, hefty bass-baritone to telling use throughout, shaping phrases with stylish flair and extracting something colorful out of nearly every syllable of text.
The role of Katisha, the Mikado's "daughter-in-law-elect," has to be the juiciest of G&S mezzo roles, certainly in musical terms. The assignment gets a terrific workout from Jenni Bank. She produces quite a deep, dark, penetrating tone, one that can extract the Verdian richness of the Act 2 recitative and aria, for example, and she gamely throws herself into the histrionic side of the character.
As the Mikado, a ruler with a yen to see more heads roll, Jarrod Lee is a little short on vocal heft, but he makes a vibrant contribution just the same. Melissa Mino is a charming, bright-voiced Yum-Yum, the maiden who finds it awfully difficult to marry her beloved Nanki-Poo. As that love interest, Jason Lee lacks finish, vocally and theatrically, but gets the job done.
Jason Buckwalter impresses as the officious Pish-Tush. He sings his Act 1 solo with admirably crisp articulation and finds many an opportunity to display his comic skills. The chorus sounds greatly advanced over years past, though not always comfortable handling stage business.
And speaking of stage business, there can be too much of it here. In a couple of scenes, director James Harp adds a heavy amount of extraneous shtick that draws attention from the main business at hand.
There are a few other odd choices (having a character repeatedly go up and down stairs or fold and unfold Japanese fans is not necessarily the best way to avoid static scenes), but Harp otherwise has things moving along in effective fashion.
New this year to Young Vic are surtitles, now commonplace in opera houses even for works sung in the local language. Given the intricacies of Gilbert's verses, and the tendency of many American singers to enunciate poorly, the surtitles are a good idea. I certainly don't remember as much laughter from audiences during the musical numbers in past Young Vic seasons.
I wonder if conductor Phillip Collister chose his propulsive tempos knowing that people could now follow the text more easily by reading it.
He pushes some of the score a bit too hard, obscuring Sullivan's melodic felicities and making it tough for singers to get the words out clearly. It's not so easy on the orchestra, either, which sometimes struggles to keep up and hold together. Still, the production certainly gets a spark from the electric charge on the podium.
All things considered, then, this "Mikado" earns -- in Gilbert's delicious phrase -- "the Japanese equivalent for 'Hear, Hear, Hear.'"
This is the last season Young Vic will be located at Bryn Mawr, the company's home since 1989 (the previous 18 years were across the street at the Gilman School). General manager Brian Goodman writes in the program book that he has "no idea where we will be for our 43rd season of Gilbert and Sullivan with 'HMS Pinafore' next year."
Wherever it lands (I wish it could be in a theater with a proper orchestra pit), Young Vic is bound to remain a welcome presence each summer.
"The Mikado" continues through July 22.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF YOUNG VICTORIAN THEATRE COMPANY