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July 17, 2012

Young Victorian Theatre Company offers exuberant 'Mikado'

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.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:17 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens


Having just seen the final Saturday night show, I agree with almost everything you write. It was a good test of the new surtitles, as I was accompanied by 2 G&S "virgins" and another who has "suffered" through a few prior productions, only to be left mystified by what was going on. The surtitles greatly solved this problem and, like you, I heard reaction among the audience when it was clear they were "getting it" by reading the lines vs. struggling to hear the words. For me, however, I came away just a bit disappointed, despite knowing the words by heart. Too much of Gilbert's humor was lost by totally distracting stage business during important plot scenes. Too many words were swallowed up or just plain inaudible from certain characters - maybe microphones are out of the budget, but they would be one solution.

With only the rare stumble, the orchestra continues to impress (though the trombone/cast interplay, while fun at first, can be overdone and actually stop the show in its tracks). I am a great fan of the orchestra at these shows, as so many just go with a few instruments or simple piano and G&S cries out for a good orchestra - and this is one, to be sure! I fervently join your hope that the company finds a proper venue with a real pit. The stand outs were, as you mention, Ms Mino as Yum Yum and Ms Bank as Katisha. I have seen dozens of Mikado productions and struggle to recall a better Katisha. Ms Bank's voice was clear and strong with excellent diction and tone and the acting was equal to the singing. Brava to her. The choral singing continues to be strong and, for once, I wasn't perturbed by the local references. They were inserted in a place that made sense (Ko-ko's little list) and rather adroitly accomplished. I look forward to Pinafore (though I do wish for one of the lesser known works like Princess Ida or Ruddigore) next season, wherever that may be - and enjoyed the Pinafore overture being played while leaving the theater.

Thanks for your wonderfully detailed review. I let the trombone shtick, um, slide, but you have reminded me that it did get laid on a little too thickly. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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