Saturday, March 31, 2012

Review: 'The Mikado'

Virginia Opera
Gerald Steichen conducting
March 30, Richmond CenterStage

Could “The Mikado” be any campier or more physically animated than it is in the production that Virginia Opera has been staging this month? Hard to imagine.

Stage director Dorothy Danner puts her cast through double-time paces that rarely slow to a jog, let alone a walk; and her direction maxes out the show’s comic lines and gestures. This is Gilbert & Sullivan that dances along the fine line between exhilaration and exhaustion. And it exacts a musical price.

In the first of two Richmond performances that conclude the production’s run, many of the singers sounded to be expending more energy in sprinting and gesticulating than in projecting their voices. Diction got lost in the rush, and not just in the speedy patter numbers. (Fortunately, the caption operator’s reflexes were quick enough.) Remarkably, voices rarely sounded strained; but too often they were underpowered. The pointed satire of W.S. Gilbert’s plot line and text rarely came across.

Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner who can barely wield his axe, is the comic hinge of the show, and Kevin Burdette proved to be a gifted comedian. In scrolling out Ko-Ko’s “little list” of those who “would not be missed” – updated and localized, per now-usual practice – and in other key comic scenes, Burdette’s gestures and timing were spot-on. His voice strengthened as the evening progressed.

Aaron St. Clair Nicholson, as the sneering aristocrat Poo-Bah, and Dorothy Byrne, as Katisha, the imperiously hideous “daughter-in-law elect” of the Mikado, were suitably over-the-top, playing up their characterizations to Monty Pythonesque excess and wearing their elaborate costumes like second skins.

Matthew Plenk and Katherine Jolly, as the young lovers Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum, flirted with excess just as effectively, if differently. Plenk milked the earnest naïveté of Nanki-Poo, and vocalized to match – on more than one occasion, he seemed about to break into “Nessun dorma” or some other staple of impassioned tenor vocalization. Jolly played Yum-Yum as a Muffie, a self-absorbed preppy prom queen; her voice veered between Lucia and Betty Boop.

Jeffrey Tucker, as the Mikado (emperor of Japan), was gleefully bloodthirsty and vocally commanding.

The company’s male chorus, the “gentlemen of Japan,” were in fine collective voice and reveled in their elaborately choreographed production numbers. The female chorus made less of an impression.

Conductor Gerald Steichen obtained an efficient, but somehow under-animated, performance from the orchestra, drawn from the Richmond Symphony.

Virginia Opera’s production of “The Mikado” concludes its run at 2:30 p.m. April 1 in the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $31-$111. Details: (866) 673-7282;