Broadway Stars Yield an Imperfect “Mikado”

United StatesUnited States  Gilbert & Sullivan, The Mikado:  Soloists, Collegiate Chorale and American Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 10.4.2012 (BE)

Chuck Cooper: The Mikado
Jason Danieley: Nanki-Poo
Christopher Fitzgerald: Ko-Ko
Jonathan Freeman: Pooh-Bah
Steve Rosen: Pish-Tush
Kelli O’Hara: Yum-Yum
Lauren Worsham: Pitti-Sing
Amy Justman: Peep-Bo
Victoria Clark: Katisha

Ted Sperling: Conductor and Director

Amy Justman, Kelli O’Hara, Lauren Worsham, the Collegiate Chorale with Ted Sperling conducting; photo credit: Erin Baiano

For over 70 years, The Collegiate Chorale of New York has presented traditional and adventurous programming  ranging from (most recently) a Kurt Weill musical (Knickerbocker Holiday) to Rossini’s Moise et Pharaon, to choral works by Tippett and Bruckner. Last night’s concert performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado with the American Symphony Orchestra and a bevy of Broadway performers was a mixed affair, indeed. It also served as the Chorale’s Spring Benefit.

By 1884, composer Arthur Sullivan had had enough of W.S. Gilbert’s fantastical plots and declared he would write no more unless he was given something that dealt with human emotions. (Their most recent collaboration, Princess Ida, had not been as successful as they had hoped.) Gilbert said he would try to come up with something; neither or them wanted to give up the cash cow of their operas, which had made them very wealthy men. The story goes that an ornamental Japanese sword hanging in Gilbert’s study came crashing to the floor, inspiring him. Given that, at the time, all things Japanese were the latest fad in England, Gilbert invented the fictional town of Titipu and a plot that would include meticulous use of Japanese costumes—while of course, satirizing British institutions and politics. Sullivan was delighted. The Mikado opened at the Savoy Theater in March 1885, ran for almost two years and is, arguably, Gilbert & Sullivan’s most performed and popular creation.

Concert performances can be a tricky business. They are usually put together quickly without much rehearsal time, and this seemed to be the case here. There were missed cues and dropped lyrics, even though the cast had the score at the ready. Things got off to a shaky start at the beginning of Nanki-Poo’s “A Wandering Minstrel,” but tenor Jason Danieley sang the rest of his role with a clear, ringing tone. As Ko-Ko, Christopher Fitzgerald sang well but was over the top in his acting, at times bellowing his speeches, reminding me of Gene Wilder’s hysteria in Mel Brooks’s film, The Producers. As has become the tradition, Ko-Ko’s “list song” included topical references to TV celebrities (e.g., Kim Kardashian), American politicians (Newt Gingrich) and even a poke at “Gilbert purists” (all penned by television writer Joe Keenan). Supposedly this tradition was started by Gilbert himself in a 1908 revival of The Mikado, although back then he didn’t use specific names but referred to archetypes such as “The lovely suffragist” and “The red-hot Socialist.”

A typical Gilbert & Sullivan chorus consists of 20 or some members. This one—at 200 voices, ten times as large—sang nicely, especially during the extended first act finale, and incorporated some bits of stage business, e.g., waving Japanese fans and occasionally pointing at the audience. But sometimes diction suffered; my companion, not familiar with the opera, had some problems understanding the lyrics. Surtitles would have helped.

Ko-Ko’s partners in crime were well conceived by Jonathan Freeman, Steve Rosen, Lauren Worsham and Amy Justman. Disappointing, however, was the portrayal of Katisha by the Tony Award-winning Victoria Clark, who went for easy laughs coupled with outrageous stage business. Given that her arias were sung with such feeling, her onstage antics were even more perplexing. In Act Two, the Broadway star Kelli O’Hara (as Yum-Yum) gave a lovely reading of “The sun whose rays are all ablaze.” If only the rest of the evening had lived up to that standard.

The performers seemed to be enjoying themselves (after all, this was a gala benefit) and the audience loved it—perhaps too much: a gigantic burst of laughter during Ko-Ko’s “Tit-Willow” only confused me. If there is a silver lining in all of this, I noticed many young people in the audience. If this imperfect evening encouraged any of them to seek out recordings of the legendary D’Oyly Carte performances, justice will have been served.

Ben Eichler