Pacific Opera Project’s Mikado Is All Over the Place

Jim Farber on August 20, 2019
Left to right: Janet Szepei Todd (Yum-Yum) Charlie Kim (Nanki-Poo) Phil Meyer (Pooh-Bah, standing behind) Pooh Bah and F. Scott Levin (Ko-Ko) in Pacific Opera Project’s The Mikado | Credit: Martha Benedict

In the dog days of summer performances of classical music in LA dry up like lawns in the San Fernando Valley. Only the Hollywood Bowl offers major classical performances between early June and September.

So, the appearance on Friday of Pacific Opera Project’s cartoon-bright revival production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado was like an oasis in the desert. It may not be the ultimate production, but it’s a lot of fun.

Unlike the Bay Area, which has been the longtime home of Lamplighters Music Theatre, those stalwart bearers of the G&S banner, productions of Gilbert & Sullivan in LA are few and far between. Directed and designed by POP’s own Lord High Pooh-Bah, Josh Shaw, with eye-popping costumes by Maggie Green, The Mikado will play through Aug. 31 at the Highland Park Ebell Club in Highland Park (between downtown and Pasadena).

A scene from Pacific Opera Project’s The Mikado | Credit: Martha Benedict

Two Very Different Japans

Last April Shaw and his company took a big chance: They sunk their largest budget to date into a culturally sensitive, bilingual production of Madame Butterfly, in which the Japanese roles were sung in Japanese. It was innovative, creative, and immensely successful.

Cultural sensitivity, however, has very little to do with POP’s Mikado. But then it wasn’t exactly the driving force behind Gilbert & Sullivan’s Victorian-era spoof which premiered in 1885, a time when the sun never set on the British Empire.

William Vallandigham (Pish), Benjamin Howard (Tush), Charlie Kim (Nanki-Poo), and Phil Meyer Pooh Bah in Pacific Opera Project’s The Mikado | Credit: Martha Benedict

Everything is played strictly (and often heavy-handedly) for laughs. And, as is common in productions of The Mikado, the lyrics to “I Have a Little List” and “Make the Punishment Fit the Crime” have been updated (by Kelsey Shaw) to include references to Facebook posts and Twitter feeds, LA traffic jams, Donald Trump’s wall, and the lifestyle of the Kardashians. There’s even a skillfully inserted pitch for cash.

The element of the production that stands out brightest is its gaggle of mincing manga maidens. From their neon-bright lip-gloss to their cotton candy outfits and Hello Kitty backpacks, these young ladies are a visual, vocal, and comic delight.

Australian soprano Janet Szepei Todd is deliciously charming as Yum-Yum. But what makes Todd’s performance even more impressive is the fact that in POP’s Madame Butterfly she dominated the stage (vocally and dramatically) as Cio-Cio San. That’s real range. Todd’s performance is perfectly accented by Abbe Drake as a spunky Pitti-Sing, and Tiffany Ho as the ever-loyal Peep-Bo.

Janet Szepei Todd as Yum-Yum flanked on the left by Tiffany Ho (Peep-Bo) and on the right by Abbe Drake ( Pitti-Sing) in Pacific Opera Project’s The Mikado | Credit: Martha Benedict

Every comic opera company needs a reliable buffoon. And for POP that task is generally handed to F. Scott Levin. Here he appears as the befuddled Lord High Executioner, Ko-Ko. With his bushy beard, thick black-rimmed glasses, and fresh from the County Jail orange jumpsuit, he looks a lot like Harvey Weinstein. Subtle he is not. But his sad account of that broken-hearted tomtit (“On a tree by a river”) was actually quite moving.

Phil Meyer, who literally stands head and shoulders above the rest of cast, gives a nicely pompous performance as Titipu’s all-purpose bureaucrat, Pooh-Bah. His character combines Victorian era satire with a dollop of Monty Python.

Charlie Kim (Nanki-Poo) and F. Scott Levin (Ko-Ko) in Pacific Opera Project’s The Mikado | Credit: Martha Benedict

Adelaide Sinclair looks imposing enough as Katisha, and she has a nice comic touch. She just doesn’t possess the vocal firepower to ignite the role and parody of all those vindictive Verdi villainesses.

The Mikado (Matthew Ian Welch) is played as a riding-crop wielding, fear-inducing, tin-pot dictator whose idea of suiting the punishment to the crime, would be making the Kardashians work for a living.

Matthew Ian Welch in the title role in Pacific Opera Project’s The Mikado | Credit: Martha Benedict

Charlie Kim (one of the few Asian members of the cast) plays the wandering minstrel in disguise, Nanki-Poo. He’s totally affable and has a singing voice that’s fine as long as the score allows him to croon. Unfortunately, his voice tends to buckle when it’s required to venture into its upper range.

Like Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dum the role of Pish-Tush in this production is an operetta two-fer and features William Vallandigham (as Pish) and Benjamin Howard (as Tush) sharing a common costume.

William Vallandigham (Pish) and Benjamin Howard (Tush) in Pacific Opera Project’s The Mikado | Credit: Martha Benedict

POP’s limited budget combined with the hall’s minimal stage space required a scaled-down orchestra, which is exactly how it sounded when conducted by Parisa Zaeri. 

That being said, POP’s Mikado is very welcome.