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Daunting task 'The Mikado' but the result is impressive

By BARBARA L. FREDRICKSEN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 22, 2002

Staging Gilbert and Sullivan's 1885 lighthearted operetta, The Mikado, is a daunting task. To be effective, it needs a full orchestra, a wide range of trained male and female voices and a large collection of costly 19th-century Japanese costumes. That's probably why few community organizations tackle it, even though a sizable number of performers and potential patrons love the art form and this show in particular.

A year ago, when the Hernando County Fine Arts Council and Hernando Symphony Orchestra announced plans to get together to do the show, many wondered if they could pull it off.

The Saturday evening opening performance at Springstead High School's Performing Arts Center went far to show they could and they did. After some initial problems adjusting the orchestra's volume downward so as not to overpower the cast's singing, The Mikado provided a marvelous evening of song, dance, pageantry (helped tremendously by scores of colorful, authentic kimonos loaned by area residents) and laughter.

A great deal of credit goes to vocal and choral director Barbara Manuel, dramatic director Vince Vanni and orchestra conductor Wayne Raymond, who chose the right performers, then coached them to work together to provide a cohesive show. Though some might question Vanni's inserting local references and having one character impersonate modern political and entertainment figures for several lines, those moments do provide hearty laughs and a reminder that this show is all in fun.

The Mikado is set in long-ago Japan, in the small town of Titipu. A wandering musician named Nanki-Poo (Joe Borsh) has come to town to look for Yum-Yum (Gabrielle Mirabella), a beautiful young girl he had seen the year before and decided to marry. He learns that she is pledged to Ko-Ko (Jerry Hartnett), a bumbling miscreant who has been appointed Lord High Executioner.

Just as Nanki-Poo tells Yum-Yum he is really the son of the country's ruler, the Mikado (Chuck Fightmaster), and has sneaked away from home to avoid marrying Katisha (Laurie Fitch), an older woman with a crush on him, Ko-Ko learns he must quickly execute someone, or the Mikado will abolish his job and demote the town to a village. Ko-Ko decides to marry Yum-Yum as quickly as possible, which leads Nanki-Poo to contemplate suicide.

Ko-Ko sees he can solve two problems at once: He'll persuade Nanki-Poo to let himself be executed instead of committing suicide and thus save his job, and he'll eliminate his rival for Yum-Yum in one fell swoop.

Nanki-Poo agrees -- but only if he can marry Yum-Yum and enjoy a monthlong honeymoon before he is beheaded.

All this beheading and suicide sound pretty grim, but in the hands of Gilbert and Sullivan, and with outstanding comic performances by the cast, it is all quite funny.

Hartnett as Ko-Ko sets the spirited comedy tone, affecting a warbling voice and awkward stance as he becomes mired in doomed strategies to save his own skin. His clumping about is made to appear even more ridiculous by costume designer Kitty Macchia's bloused bloomers and exaggerated shoulder pieces and Lucille Roth's wigs and makeup.

Borsh plays the lovesick Nanki-Poo low-key and dignified, delightfully bolstering the absurdity of Hartnett's Ko-Ko. Borsh's clear mezzo-tenor blends well with Ms. Mirabella's soaring soprano, most beautifully in their duet, Were You Not To Ko-Ko Plighted. The graceful Ms. Mirabella is a lovely Yum-Yum, her strong voice and confident air belying her youth.

Jason McMahan is a properly arrogant Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else, who has appropriated every government job in the city so he can collect the pay and have all the power. Ms. Fitch is a striking Katisha, her strong voice and dramatic gestures conveying her fury at being jilted by Nanki-Poo.

The leads are ably supported by Jim Varner as the noble Pish-Tush, Kim Carpenter-Abrams as Yum-Yum's older sister Pitti-Sing, Abby Dix as Yum-Yum's younger sister Peep-Boh, and Fightmaster, valiantly battling a bad case of laryngitis on opening night in the title role.

The 34-member orchestra acquits itself nicely, as do the Noble Lords, Ladies and Schoolgirls of Titipu in their choral work and in Jayne Spradlin's choreography.

The Mikado is an impressive first effort by the combined groups and gives great promise for future productions at the proposed Nimmagadda Cultural Center, which will receive the profits from this show.

Review

The Mikado, an operetta in two acts, at Springstead High School, 3300 Mariner Blvd., Spring Hill, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15. Call Beneva at (352) 799-8507.

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