In their 77th season, The Pittsburgh Savoyards opened their latest production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado Friday night. Specifying “Gilbert and Sullivan” may be a bit redundant for those who are familiar with Pittsburgh Savoyards’ work because they strictly produce their classic comic operas twice a year. A week before its 130th birthday, The Mikado never failed to deliver laughs, powerful voices and satire on late 19th century politics.
As I walked into a not-so-packed house at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library Music Hall, I noticed a very European-looking castle painted on a drop being used as the curtain. I appreciated the nod to the satirical nature of this play. I mean, who makes flirting an offense punishable by death? The Mikado, that’s who. Gilbert and Sullivan wrote this as a satire of the things happening in British government at the time. The conductor, Guy Russo, comes out and we begin the Overture. The orchestra sounded absolutely exquisite, I could listen to them all day.
As the castle drop rises, we enter the fictional Japanese town of Titipu and we are introduced to a few of our main characters. Nanki-Poo, a traveling second trombone player, is played by Sean Lenhart. I recall Lenhart killing it as the Prosecuting Attorney in Parade a while back and he did not disappoint this time around. Lenhart has quite a set of pipes on him and they were well exercised in songs such as “A Wandr’ing Minstrel I” or Nanki-Poo’s duet with his beloved Yum-Yum “Were You Not to Ko-Ko Plighted”. Speaking of Ko-Ko, I believe he was my favorite character. Michael Greenstein, a Savoyards veteran, was spectacular as the weird, slightly desperate tailor-turned-Lord High Executioner. Greenstein delivered with his vocals and slayed with all of Ko-Ko’s fun one-liners such as “Can’t you see I’m soliloquizing?” or “It could have been on his pocket handkerchief but the Japanese don’t carry pocket handkerchiefs”.
The “Lord High Everything Else” Pooh-Bah was played with a deliciously thick layer of sass by Leon S. Zionts, who I recently saw for the first time performing at MTAP’s Hot Metal Musicals earlier this week. He was just a treat: slightly greedy, brutally honest (when paid the correct fee) and willing to go along with anything (again, for the right amount). When he, Ko-Ko and Nobleman Pish-Tush (Jim Newsome) were all on stage together I could not get enough of their snarky remarks and eye rolling.Once we all get comfortable with the gentlemen, the ladies appear! The song “Three Little Maids from School Are We” introduces Ko-Ko’s wards, Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo. They shuffled across the stage with their flirty fans and giggled making this number adorably girly. I was definitely not expecting the power in Elizabeth Rishel’s voice as she belted out song after song like it was nothing for her character, Yum-Yum. Judy Kirby gave me a newfound appreciation for the role of Pitti-Sing especially after standing up for her friend to the woman Nanki-Poo, The Mikado’s apparent long lost son, was promised to, Katisha (Mary Beth Sederberg). Sabina Balsamo was just the comic relief/ditz of the group and was consistently precious.
Due to the lack of an orchestra pit in the space, the orchestra took up a rather large part of the house and would overpower the singers at times and I lost some important vocals. The large ensemble was somewhat of a distraction as well, so many people being on stage sometimes took away from what was really happening. Some of my favorite numbers took place with four or less people on stage. Jeanne Caffro’s costumes, while beautiful, were incredibly busy and made it hard to keep track of the main characters. Sabrina Hykes’ set created the perfect Titipu courtyard and was refreshingly simple.
If you’d like to see “Yinzers playing British acting Japanese”, as Ko-Ko would say, then The Pittsburgh Savoyards’ production of The Mikado is definitely for you.
Please note that this show has been double cast and I saw that cast performing on March 6. There is a second cast performing on alternate days.
The Mikado is presented by The Pittsburgh Savoyards running weekends through March 15. Tickets can be purchased here.
Special thanks to The Pittsburgh Savoyards for complimentary press tickets. Photo credits Greg Kornides.