in: Reviews

August 9, 2016

Mikado Fits Crime & Kiss Me Kate Brushes Up

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(Matt Dilyard photo)

Ted Christopher and Sarah Best (Matt Dilyard photo)

From our far-flung correspondent.

The Ohio Light Opera (in Wooster, OH) last Wednesday gave two of the best-known works seen there this summer­­­­—Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate. The former has been mounted at OLO in 14 of its 38 seasons (not surprising, perhaps, since the company originally started as purely G&S troupe); Kate played for the first time. In recent years at least, the company chooses one of its seven shows from among the biggest hits in the modern Broadway canon in order to attract the large audiences that enable the company to be able to afford revivals of less familiar—even almost unknown—works to delight connoisseurs of the musical theater and the more curious. Kiss Me Kate opened the season and was scheduled for 13 performances (compared to five to eight for the period revivals). Later Irving Berlin’s most successful book, show Annie Get Your Gun, joined with 12 performances.

Lectures and salon concerts supplemented the shows all week. Two of Wednesday’s lecturers offered views of the contemporary operetta in Europe, first from Daniel Hirschel, a German dramaturg, producer, director, translator, and performer, on German and French operettas of recent decades and their modern style. András Szentpéteri, a former arts journalist in Hungary who is now manager of the Hungarian company responsible for foreign tours of the Budapest Operetta and Musical Theatre gave the second. Armed with extensive videos, he demonstrated some of the ways in which classical Hungarian operettas are being reworked for modern audiences. These showed performance that appear at first to be like the performances and broadcasts that the New York Philharmonic has offered of shows like Company, with actors on a bare stage in front of the orchestra but the climaxes in the Hungarian shows add an extraordinary amount of acrobatic dancing and repetition to some songs at tempos that get faster and faster as the dances perform cartwheels and lifts that suggested (to me, at least) something like a cirque de soleil of operetta. I expressed my concern to Szentpéteri that these new productions were denaturing the essence of the Kálmán operettas in his examples. He maintained that this approach was essential to keep such works alive for modern tastes—though he assured me that those who desired a traditional production could also find that in Budapest.

A favorite feature of the symposia at OLO has been a salon concert of “Songs from the Cutting Room Floor,” music conceived for shows mounted this summer, but dropped before opening night. Many considerations motivated the cuts: perhaps the song slowed down the plot, or perhaps it did not especially suit the performer. Sometimes simply the composer came up with a better idea. It is always intriguing and enlightening to hear—usually for the first time—songs by Kern and Wodehouse dropped from Have a Heart (a show almost completely unknown until this summer) but still more to hear songs that might have been part of some of the most famous shows ever written, including Kiss Me Kate and Annie Get Your Gun. As a climax to end the hour, we were treated to two selections from The Hot Mikado of 1939, of which “Three Little Maids” in the style of a performance by the Andrews Sisters brought the house down. The program was planned by the organizer of the symposium, Michael Miller of Los Angeles, president of the Operetta Foundation, and master of a wide-ranging familiarity with the entire world of operetta.

The 2016 OLO Mikado is quite likely the most beautiful I have ever seen. Charlene Gross’s sets appear as simple and spare in Japanese style as the costumes are lavishly colored and draped. Director Ted Christopher invented an effective mime action during the overture designed as a response to recent charges in connections with performances in New York and elsewhere that The Mikado is in some way racist.

When the audience enters, the stage is already visible, revealing the interior of a spare Japanese teahouse in which three women in kimono are sitting at a low table preparing the tea ceremony. A small group of ladies and gentlemen in elegant Victorian dress wander in without much apparent direction, looking at everything with interest. They are clearly tourists visiting a museum of sorts. Suddenly one realizes that this is the Japanese exhibition that was being offered at Knightsbridge when W.S. Gilbert was inspired to choose a Japanese subject for his comic opera. The Victorian visitors are curious (a few of them even sample the tea in the pot after the Japanese ladies leave), but it is not clear that their experience has been especially enlightening for them; it is just a surface encounter. Similarly, the operetta that follows is a broad spoof of English society, but it happens to be presented with an overlay of japonoiserie.

(Matt Dilyard photo)

Alexa Devlin (Matt Dilyard photo)

As in all Gilbert and Sullivan, the chorus en masse forms an essential character. Spencer Reese’s choreography—especially with the fans that everyone holds (he referred to it as “fanography”)—is entirely fresh, an entire chorus of fans opening with a snap! making them a  contribution to the orchestra’s percussion, and with direction of movement and performers stance carefully delineated to produce  wonderful stage pictures, usually abstract, but at least once (when Nanki-Poo sings his “song of  the sea”) suddenly converting the male chorus (also with fans) into a ship on the waves

Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum were double-cast. I saw Benjamin Krumreig and Emily Nelson, who were vocally splendid, with excellent diction and flirtatious charm. Nathan Brian made Ko-Ko rubber-limbed and often (owing to the circumstances of the plot), placed the character in a state of comic desperation. He played more to the audience than many interpreters, to droll effect. Brad Baron’s Pooh-Bah was gloriously pompous, and Isaac Assor’s resonant bass as Pish-Tush provided the underpinning in Sullivan’s setting of the second act madrigal. Gretchen Windt was a lively and charmingly self-impressed Pitti-Sing; she joined with Yum-Yum and Hilary Koolhoven (Peep-Bo) to make up the delightful three little maids.

After seeing the clever manipulation of fans by the entire cast through most of Act I, the arrival of Katisha, the battle-ax who demands that Nanki-Poo marry her, surprises, both because of the force of her personality (and the strong singing of Alexa Devlin in the role) and because she carries a fan that is perhaps ten times as big as all the others, one that makes rather a roar of sound when it falls open! By contrast, the powerful Mikado himself (Samus Haddad) arrives with a tiny little fan, much smaller than normal, which of course brings a laugh from the audience.

Another substantial laugh came with one lyric updated to the current Presidential campaign, when Ko-Ko’s “little list” of those “who never would be missed” includes these lines (quoted as best I can remember them from the performance):

The real-estate developer who’s now the nominee,
I’ve got him on the list – I’ve got him on the list—
Should stick to what he does the best – reality TV.
He never would be missed—no, he never would be missed!

All problems are set right, of course, even including the risk of execution, by the joyous final chorus, supported by OLO’s fine young orchestra, conducted by OLO’s music director J. Lynn Thompson, who recently led his 1000th performance with the company.

* * *

Kiss Me Kate marked the first season in which Cole Porter’s masterpiece has been seen in Wooster. (The company has previously done Jubilee, Silk Stockings, and Can-Can.) Directed by Stephen Carr, designed by Ken Martin (set) and Stefanie Genda (costumes), and choreographed by Spencer Reese, the production made the most of the basic distinction between the “onstage” performance of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and the “backstage” lives of the troupe, which revealed the full depth of the Friedlander Theater stage, all the way to the back wall.

Probably most people these days know Kiss Me Kate from the 1953 film version, which, like all Hollywood versions of Broadway, was bowdlerized and rearranged but sometimes charming period piece. OLO takes the original show seriously in both libretto and music. Of course, performers have individual qualities that shape each production, but the concept of the show is faithful to the original version.

Associate music director Steven Byess moved the show smoothly from the jazzy, modern setting of the frame story backstage to the quasi-period music of the songs that are part of the Shakespeare play (Porter’s distinguishing between these styles, while making the “period” music of the Shakespeare portions suggestive and lively, is one of the great delights of this score.)

The principal roles of Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi were double cast (with Ted Christopher/Brad Baren and Sarah Best/Tanya Roberts, respectively).  I heard the first of each pair. Ted Christopher’s rich baritone voice, and superb diction, both speaking and singing, puts him in the same theatrical realm as Alfred Drake, who created the role. Christopher has been with the company since 1997 and giving strong performances in roles ranging from Jack Point to Tevye; he also directs at least one show a year. (In the winter, he is the director of the opera theater at Pennsylvania State University.) Sarah Best has proven herself a vivacious and bewitching actress over five years at OLO. As Lilli Vanilli she is a musical theater singer who has become a film star; the expression “going Hollywood” describes her relationship to the company at the beginning of the show, especially with her former husband, Fred, for whom she still preserves a fairly well-hidden warmth. The working-out of their marital issues both on and offstage is the main element of the plot.

But other couples have their own concerns to work out. Lois Lane, the nightclub singer whom Fred is “training” for musical theater, brilliantly played by Hannah Kurth in her first major role at OLO (in previous years she has been an ensemble singer/dancer and played small parts). The bluesy lament “Why can’t you behave?” to her gambling boyfriend Bill suggests the musical world she has inhabited before getting a part in “Shrew,” and her comic list song of former lovers (“Always true to you in my fashion”), with its sexy leggy solo dance, was a showstopper.  Stephen Faulk was her jealous boyfriend offstage, and the ardent lover Lucentio (aching to marry Bianca, played by his offstage girlfriend) in the inner play, which offered him fine opportunities in “Tom, Dick, and Harry” (with Hannah Kurth as Bianca and Cameron Brownell and Isaac Assor as the other two suitors) and “Bianca.”

Audiences always especially love the two gangsters who show up in Fred’s dressing room to collect a gambling debt, about which knows nothing, since it was really incurred by Bill, who signed Fred’s name to the IOU. As they hang around the theater waiting for the box office receipts (which Fred promises to use to pay the debt), they show a surprising degree of literary culture, expressed in the patois of hoodlums. When they accidentally find themselves onstage in front of an audience, they sing the delightful “Brush up your Shakespeare,” for which Porter wrote an extended string of encore verses; the audience repeatedly called Kyle Yampiro and Royce Strider for back (if I remember correctly) five encores—and if they had more verses to sing, they’d probably still be doing it.

(Matt Dilyard photo)

“And if you call for a song of the sea…” (Matt Dilyard photo)

Finally, a word has to be said about the dancing in Kiss Me Kate. Almost every number turns into some kind of choreographic element, whether is the Fred and Lilli’s waltz for just the two of them to “Wunderbar” or any one of several large dances for most of the company, from the first song (“Another op’ning, another show”) to the finale. Bianca and her three suitors had a witty fling as part of “Tom, Dick, and Harry.” All of these, and more, were created by Spencer Reese, who this year choreographed every single show (and took roles in most of them). This young talent—a pianist and singer who studied theatrical direction with OLO’s artistic director Steven Daigle at Eastman, and who, as a competitive ballroom dancer placed third in the USA Dance National Championships—has choreographed every show in 2016, but he outdid himself in Kiss Me Kate, creating a number of spectacular dance scenes for essentially the entire company. The most breathtaking of these was to the song that opens Act II. In the original show, a stagehand named Paul, complains that it’s “Too Darn Hot”. On Broadway, the heat prevented his favorite sport—sex; in Hollywood the song was not nearly so suggestive—it was relocated to early in the show as an audition number for Ann Miller. The OLO production left the dance where it belonged. Spencer Reese sang and danced with sly wit and energy, and eventually just about everyone in the cast joined in as it got wilder and wilder. This second-act opening lifted the play to a new level of energy as the interplay of onstage and backstage stories work themselves out in front of an audience left all but breathless by the remarkable ensemble dance.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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