Midway through Act Two of Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s gleeful and delicious production of The Mikado, Doug Jarecki ends his character’s signature song with a grand exit a la Groucho Marx. He is indeed “A More Humane Mikado,” as his song declares, but he obviously is a more modern one as well (perhaps even the very model of a modern Mika….ok, never mind). Jarecki is without the Japanese trappings of traditional productions, he has been free to ad lib and slyly mug his way through the story, and the eyeroll and mock cigar flick as he leaves the stage is one more flourish that declares what the audience has been learning throughout this production: that the “operettas” of Gilbert and Sullivan are much more fun than most people think.
To be sure, the dynamic Victorian duo has its lyric-quoting 21st-century fans. But ask the uninitiated these days, and they’re likely to think of G&S as the authors of hokey operetta warbling rather than the peers of Oscar Wilde and progenitors of the Marx Brothers and Monty Python.
But Jill Anna Ponasik and the cast of MOT’s fizzy production have no problem asserting that lineage. Using a variety of way-out instruments–including toy pianos and trombones—and a loose, improv-ish acting style, they’ve created a show that is nothing like your grandfather’s Mikado, but is still gloriously true to W.S. Gilbert’s comic spirit.
But not too true to the original spirit of the Mikado, which is steeped in the Orientalist racism of the Victorian era. This is an imagined Japan, after all, in which the Lord High Executioner is an exalted figure, and beheadings seem to be monthly civic events not unlike parades or fireworks. Ponasik and her co-director Catie O’Donnell don’t Americanize the story with stars and stripes or flag lapel pins (though a trio of sunglassed Secret Service types do make an appearance), but all the glib talk of executions does make one think of the good ol’ U. S. of A., where one state just brought back the firing squad as a way to deal with social ills.
But serious matters are but a deep undercurrent in a show this inventive, frothy and yes, topsy-turvy. Jarecki and Jason Powell do most of the heavy comedic lifting, along with a true and hilarious star turn by Diane Lane, as the biker-chick Katisha. For romantic leads, it’s hard to beat Nathan Wesselowski and Susan Weidmeyer as Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum, glorious singers who shine in several duet and solo turns (Weidmeyer’s “Braid the Raven Hair” was a musical highlight).
And a special “how-de-do!” to Ruben Piirainen, the musical director who helped shaped the inventive arrangements that incorporated a boatload of percussion instruments, including several items that are more Dollar Store than Brass Bell. It’s great to have Mssrs. Gilbert and Sullivan back on a Milwaukee stage, slide whistles and all.