Entertainment, Reviews

Exemplary Cast, Strong Voices, Excellent Actors in “The Mikado”

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The first production at the Unadilla Theatre in East Calais this summer season is “The Mikado” by William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, a masterful comic operetta whose witty lyrics and always engaging melodies continue to entertain audiences ever since its debut in 1885.

Mary Jane Austin as music director and accompanying pianist, and Erik Kroncke as stage director, have assembled an exemplary cast of strong voices and excellent actors for a superb performance that will delight your ears and keep a smile on your face for the full two-plus hours.

As Kroncke observes in his introductory program note, “The Mikado” suffers a bit from the prevalent colonial attitudes of the time toward a non-European culture, as does Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” (1904). Imagine a role reversal in the latter opera, where a Japanese naval officer comes to San Francisco and has an affair with an American equivalent of a geisha!

In any case, this version of “The Mikado” is set in Knightsbridge near London with a picturesque country house in the background, and all the players are dressed in 19th Century English costumes, with some Japanese objets d’art scattered around. The character names and the text of the operetta, though, remain the original, so this minor visual tweak is barely noticeable.

Gilbert and Sullivan operettas almost all have the same basic plot, namely the conflict between love and duty, but they embody the best characteristic of English humor, the ability to laugh at ourselves. Throughout their remarkable collaboration (see the film “Topsy-Turvy” for deep insights into how they worked so effectively together), they were unsparing in their mocking of the English military, Parliament, the judicial system, the Aesthetic Movement, class structure, etc., and the numerous absurdities of the situations and dialogue of The Mikado remain, alas, all too familiar still in England, not to mention our own country and others around the world.

Mary Jane Austin, a flawless musician on the piano, began with the rousing overture, followed by the opening number introducing us to the “Gentlemen of Japan”, with the well-disciplined mens’ chorus consisting of Erick Kroncke (Pooh-Bah), Bob Emmons (Pish-Tush), Nial McCallan (later The Mikado), Neal Punsal and Rich Rayfield. Neil Cerruti played the hero, Nanki-Poo, substituting at the last moment on Friday, July 5, for Adam Hall, who was indisposed. Cerruti has a fine voice and remarkable acting skills, a long time veteran of Unadilla and other local theaters. His rendition of “A Wandering Minstrel” and other songs in the show were full of feeling. Bob Emmons sang with a very professional voice a convoluted account of how Ko-Ko, a mere tailor who broke a ridiculous law against staring at a beloved without being married, was released from jail (and capital punishment!) by the ever-benevolent Mikado.

Kroncke then gave a hilarious, self-inflating description of his own rise to power by assuming eight different offices simultaneously after all the others in the local government resigned rather than serve under Ko-Ko. He has a commanding voice with a depth of color and can use his body imaginatively to animate the words of the song and the spoken script.

Ko-Ko himself appears, acted by William H.F. Altman, who has great stage presence and wonderfully expressive eyes and body language, in addition to a well-trained voice. His singing of “I’ve Got A Little List” and other numbers is brilliant. As the somewhat clumsy villain, he is about to marry Yum-Yum, one of his three wards, with whom Nanki-Poo had fallen in love a year earlier while in disguise as an itinerant musician. He had been forced to flee the court of his father, the Mikado, to avoid a forced, political marriage to an older woman.

The heroine Yum-Yum, portrayed by Jo Butler, with her two sisters, Pitti-Sing (Emily Milne) and Peep-Bo (Betsy Ainsworth) enter and sing a particularly upbeat song, “Three Little Maids From School”, well supported by schoolmates in the women’s chorus, consisting of Beth Damon, Reenie DeGeus, Claire Dumas and Tamara Martenez. Butler and Milne have many additional opportunities to demonstrate their beautiful harmonizing voices. An added, hopeless complication occurs when Katisha, played by Carrie Youngblood with a skilled voice, suddenly appears. She is the older woman who had wanted to marry Nanki-Poo, presenting yet another obstacle to his marriage to Yum-Yum.

Thus the driving momentum of the plot is set up in the first act. In the second act, the Mikado himself arrives, played by Niall McCallum, very consistently in character with an appropriately rich voice of authority. His performance of “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime”, with its grizzly black humor, was especially impressive. The twists and turns of the plot continue absurdly without resolution, but with endless amusement, to the inevitable Gilbert & Sullivan happy ending.

Don’t miss this exceptional production! Your last chances will be this coming weekend, Friday and Saturday, July 12 and 13, at 7:30 p.m., or Sunday, July 14, at 2 p.m.

Further Unadilla offerings this season will be Shakspeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” (July 19-August 4), Checkov’s “Uncle Vanya” (July 18-August 4) and “Returning to Haifa” (August 8-August 24). For more information call (802) 456-8968 or go online at

unadilla.org.

David K. Rodgers

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