Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Milwaukee Opera Theatre presents "The Mikado"

Hilarious, wild & wondrous — catch it while you can! 

Our city is abuzz about the Milwaukee Opera Theatre's The Mikado, and now I know why. It was industry night on Monday, and the intimate Next Act Theatre was packed with theatrical types. Paper lanterns swayed overhead and the "orchestra" lay in wait, illuminated against a pitch black stage. I went blindly into the Gilbert & Sullivan classic (I'm an opera novice), but some tunes rang strangely familiar. I later found out all those Frasier re-runs are to thank.

The Mikado is a comic drama from 1885 that tells the story of Nanki-Poo who loves Yum-Yum, who is supposed to marry Ko-Ko. Nanki-Poo is believed to be just a poor Second Trombone in a traveling show, but he's in fact the only son and heir to the Mikado's throne. It's one of those stories that's complex in a Shakespearean way: Secret identities, scorned ex-lovers, sometimes-clever deceptions, and the occasional threat of beheading. 

The characters are equally madcap. There's the aforementioned Nanki-Poo, Yum-Yum, and Ko-Ko (the city of Titipu's Lord High Executioner), Pooh-Bah (Titipu's Lord High Everything Else), Katisha (the ex; rather psychotic & plain-faced), and The Mikado himself. Oh, and FYI: The original staging and story take place in Japan, which nowadays makes you squirm in a "these caricatures aren't PC" way. 

But what makes the Milwaukee Opera Theatre's production of The Mikado so very special is how they trade Japan for a vague, fanciful setting, thereby avoiding any touchy subjects in favor of fun. For my part, names like Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum might as well have been elves or oompah loompahs. I didn't read into it, rather gladly accepted the whimsical nomenclature at face value. 

It was easy to do, since the staging of this Mikado invites you to check your adulting tendencies at the door and revel in an evening of laughter and silliness. That "orchestra" I mentioned earlier? It's actually an ingenious lineup of percussion instruments. Thanks to the private collection of Michael Lorenz, percussionist at Skylight Music Theatre, and the creative vision of Artistic Director Jill Anna Ponasik, the 11-piece vocal ensemble plays all of the instruments throughout the show themselves. There are tiny toy pianos, three gongs, washboards, finger cymbals, things that go "whiz!" and "whomp," plastic tubes in different tones, simple buckets and sticks, and even a squawking rubber chicken. 

And let's not forget the greatest instrument of all: the marvelous voices! This same troupe of eleven originated the Milwaukee Opera Theatre's Mikado two years ago to rave reviews, and all the same near-flawless talent is back. Susan Wiedmeyer as Yum-Yum certainly cast a spell with her lovely songbird's ballad "The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze." Diane Lane's leather-clad Katisha had the audience in stitches with her cougar-esque take on the vengeful lover. As for the primary men in the ensemble, it's tough to pick a star. 

Nathan Wesselowski as Nanki-Poo oozes easy charisma. Jason Powell and Joseph Riggenbach as Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah, respectively, are such a hilarious duo, they just might be my favorites — especially Powell. Whether comically holding a note for what felt like a good 30 seconds or brandishing a rubber chicken, it was a blast to just sit back and laugh. Laugh, and relish the unbeatable talent. 

After the standing ovation on Monday night, as my theater buddy and I walked back to our cars, I asked her what she thought. "Wasn't what I was expecting!" she laughed. It was her first opera. "I always thought the opera was dramatic. Starting with a comedy was actually a great way to go." I couldn't agree more. Sure this was only my second opera ever (and I was lucky that my first was Milwaukee Opera Theatre's Zie Magic Flute!), but I must say that if you're ever going to get your operatic feet wet, now is absolutely the time. 

The Mikado is playing this Thursday through Sunday at the Next Act Theatre. Information and tickets at

*Photos by Mark Frohna

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