Theater Review: A “Mikado” That’s a Joy to Hear and Behold

The well sung, classically staged Lyric Stage production of The Mikado supplies plenty of trip down memory lane satisfactions.

The Mikado. Libretto by W.S. Gilbert. Music by Arthur Sullivan. Directed and staged by Spiro Veloudos. Musical Direction by Jon Goldberg. Presented by the Lyric Stage Company, Boston, MA, through October 13.

By Iris Fanger

Erica Spyres (Yum-Yum) and Davron S. Monroe (Nanki-Poo) in THE MIKADO at The Lyric Stage. Photo: Mark S. Howard.

Those of us who grew up on patter songs rather than rap chants can still sing the W. S. Gilbert lyrics set to the tunes composed by Sir Arthur Sullivan. Back in the years when high school musicals created by the Victorian-era pair were performed as often as shows by Rodgers and Hammerstein and talented teenagers aspired to the school auditorium stage rather than national television, we could trip Gilbert’s intricate words off our tongues.

So you can imagine the trip down memory lane satisfactions of viewing the well sung, classically staged Lyric Stage production of The Mikado. Under the musical direction of Jonathan Goldberg—an under appreciated hero of the local theater scene—and staged with fidelity by Spiro Veloudos to the ridiculous premise of a Japan that never was, the show is a joy to hear and behold.

As for the politics of the piece, which satirize the British government transparently disguised via the officials of Japan—and by extension our politicos in an election year—it makes delightful sense that Veloudos, aided by Deb Poppel, Bob Jolly, and Goldberg, revised the lyrics to “I’ve Got A Little List” to include Tea Party activists and Wilkipedia, along with John Williams and the entire Boston Pops. The best updated gag line comes when the royal edict to the citizens of the town ends with “My name is The Mikado and I approve this message.” It’s not sharp commentary, nor particularly subtle satire, but who cares when the familiar songs are punched out by such lovely voices.

Veloudos and Goldberg were right to make the quality of the singing their priority and raid the superior voices in the local opera pool for the cast. Moreover, they looked for eccentricity when casting the leading characters, perhaps a danger because at least two of the actors deliver vaudeville turns that do not meld with the ensemble.

Bob Jolly regales the cast of THE MIKADO. Photo by Mark S. Howard

No matter. G & S veteran Jolly’s scenery-chewing antics as the Lord High Executioner (who’s back in excellent voice after his much publicized throat failure on opening weekend) and those of Timothy John Smith in the title role only add to the “innocent merriment.”

The formula works right from the top when five stalwart men march on stage to belt out “If you want to know who we are (We are Gentlemen of Japan)” in a powerful, unison chorus. Later on, David Kravitz as Pooh-Bah (Lord High Everything Else) takes command of the stage with his compelling baritone and hyper facial expressions, which is when he can wrestle the audience’s attention away from Jolly, a clown of the first order. Jolly is constantly in motion, whether he’s center stage or not, doing a little heel-toe jig off to the side, or mugging grandly to remind the viewer of his presence. The golden voiced Leigh Barrett is another stand-out in the role of the cougar-woman, Katisha, on the make for the young prince, Nanki-Poo, the son of the Mikado who ran away from court to escape her clutches. With an impressive vocal range and a pungent sense of fun, Barrett manages to generate sympathy for her character, despite being dressed like the Wicked Witch of the West, complete with a smoke-filled entrance.

Erica Spyres and Leigh Barrett in THE MIKADO at The Lyric Stage. Photo: Mark S. Howard.

Davron S. Monroe and Erica Spyres, who appeared last spring in the Lyric Stage production of Avenue Q, are paired as the lovers, Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum. Monroe’s lilting voice is especially effective in “A Wandering Minstrel I,” while Spyres as a self-indulgent teeny-bopper hits a high C despite the adolescent antics. That’s she’s a blond with pigtails on her head only furthers the remove from any sort of ethnic veracity.

As choreographer as well as director, Veloudos neatly arranges clichéd, little bent-kneed scampers across the stage, which are often accompanied by a cacophony of giggles for the school girls. Otherwise, the movement consists of unison to-ing and fro-ing by the ensemble, punctuated by snapping of their fans and cascading gestures.

Janie Howland, who is a regular at Lyric Stage, has contributed a picture postcard of Japan for a set, further decorated by Rafael Jaen’s kimono-based costuming. And hearty congratulations to whoever glued the long, red fingernails on the Mikado and arranged the false bald spots with top knots on the Samurai males.

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