This is opera? With MOT's zany "Mikado" on stage, of course it is
Kind of like the Marx Brothers, the tandem of Gilbert and Sullivan was pretty funny all by itself, and their opera, "The Mikado," has been one of their funniest for more than a century.
So leave it to Milwaukee Opera Theatre and its band of merry pranksters to take what is a funny show, turn it on its ear and wring laughs out of this chestnut that neither Gilbert or Sullivan ever imagined.
Created by prankster-in-chief Jill Anna Ponasik, her partner Catie O'Donnell – along with music by Ruben Piirainen and Pauly Foley Tillen – this production had the audience smiling from the first moment to the last. A lot of people say that, but it's absolutely true. The only thing that rivaled the designed chaos on the stage was the chaotic response by the audience.
This thing is kind of like taking the Marx Brothers and giving them Richard Pryor, Abbott and Costello, and Luciano Pavarotti to play with. That's what you get in this production of "The Mikado."
The preview I saw Thursday night was the first night of Opera Week in Milwaukee with three different shows opening over the weekend. I have not seen the other two, from Florentine and Skylight, but if you are only going to one opera this year, "The Mikado" is the one.
Let's begin by talking about the music makers used in the production, because that will give you an idea of what is in store. This list is comprehensive but not exhaustive. I'm sure I missed some, and some of them I don't know the names to.
There are two toy pianos, guitars, ukuleles, boomwhackers, two trombones, a flute, a real piano, a bass drum or two, a variety of gongs from giant to tiny, triangles, slide whistles, a bunch of things that you might see as favors for a six-year-old's birthday party, castanets, cymbals, drums, gray industrial pails, drumsticks, those mariachi things cowbells, those wooden blocks that you bang together, a washboard, maracas, a squeeze box (a toy one) and finally, a rubber chicken.
All of this merriment is wound around a story as old as, well, as old as "Mikado." Boys and girls and lovers and obstacles and evil guys and pretty girls and lonely people and strict rules and all the other stuff that goes into a good love story.
This cast of a dozen singers, actors and dancers manage to wander through this story, stopping every now and then to sing something or say something, and then returning to the emotional wanderlust that is the hallmark of this production. It's as if every moment is something that just occurred to someone so they thought they'd give it a try.
There are no flat moments in this production. The musical tasks are so complex that they seem simple.
There are, to be sure, highlights that stood out from the splendid performance from each of the dozen on stage.
First of all, you have Jason Powell and Doug Jarecki, two of the funniest and most creative actors / musicians in this city. The lyrics in this production are by Gilbert with additional lyrics from Powell, who has a streak of humor that is wonderful.
Powell hit the first home run with his song "As Some Day It May Happen." Think Adam Sandler with his songs of lists. Powell has a song of a list of things that might happen someday.
A sample: "To Republicans in power they are many; To Democrats in power, there's aren't any."
From then on, it was a mixture of the classic with the crazy, aided and abetted by the actors – with special attention being paid to Diane Lane, either one of the funniest best singers or one of the best singing comedic actors in town.
With a black leather jacket and motorcycle boots, she is a stitch, admitting that her face is plain but being thrilled by "my left shoulder blade, which is beautiful and which people come from miles around to see."
The scene between her and Jarecki, when she is armed with a pair of cymbals, may be the funniest thing you'll see on a stage this year.
None of this would work, of course, unless these people had the chops to carry this music. And to a person, they are all fine singers who seem to have set their serious sides into the corner and allowed their great voices to soar over this jumble of nonsense.
A special word has to go to James Zager, who did the choreography, and Michael "Ding" Lorenz, maybe the best percussionist in the city.
Moving these 12 actors around the stage with the kind of fluidity, humor and grace Zager provided was an amazing feat. And Lorenz directed a wild variety of percussion instruments into sound that carried all the music and, in some cases, provided the music itself.
As I have said time and again, Milwaukee Opera Theatre has a knack of making opera accessible and attractive to all audiences. You don't have to be an opera fan to get a huge kick out of what they do every time out – but that's especially the case in this show.
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