Strong musicianship lifts Savoyards' Mikado



The Mikado

3 1/2 stars

Durham Savoyards

Carolina Theatre

(closed March 21)

Keely Phillips and Steven Lumpkin in "The Mikado." Photo by Joe Cohn.
  • Keely Phillips and Steven Lumpkin in "The Mikado." Photo by Joe Cohn.

Call the Durham Savoyards a theatrical anachronism—if you dare. For the truth is this: At this writing, over 50 such companies in the United States (and another 100 or so, back in Britain) exist to do one thing only—cart the lot of us back to the last two decades of the 1800s, and plant us in the boxes of the Savoy Theater of London, as William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan employ classically-trained musicians and singers to ever-so-gently ridicule the absurdities of Victorian culture. Gilbert’s penchant for unhinging the conventions of proper society and send them careening to their logical (and hyper-verbal) conclusions qualifies him as a great-grandfather to those fantastical creatures, the Goons, the Fringe and the Pythons: in short, the British comic vanguard from the middle of the last century on.

For the record, there is something truly sublime in such high-handed mockery when it’s delivered in poker-face and achingly correct decorum. But when a group lacks the musical technique for light opera—certainly not the easiest of enterprises—what’s left of the joke winds up on the company. And, of course, the ticket-buying audience.

So it’s gratifying to report that this run of The Mikado is the most musically sure-footed of any Savoyard production I’ve seen to date. The first temptation is to praise the leads: Steven Lumpkin’s clear crystal tenor as protagonist Nanki-Poo, the Japanese empire’s semi-ditzy heir apparent, and soprano aerialist Keely Phillips’ matching achievements as his rather vain love, Yum-Yum.

But having focused on effects, now let’s examine the cause: the musical direction of Alan Riley Jones. Credit him, for starters, with crafting Stuart Albert’s notable work in the supporting role of Ko-Ko, Yum-Yum’s guardian (and prospective husband), a lord high executioner who cannot kill a fly. No, not bad at all, gentlemen—particularly for a comic actor who, if pre-production interviews are to be believed, cannot read sheet music. Say this much: Experts in the packed house which greeted Sunday’s matinee couldn’t tell.

In another plot point, a stuffed-shirt functionary named Poo-Bah serves a number of positions in the city’s government—simultaneously, since so few qualified applicants can be found. Under Derrick Ivey’s witty, efficient direction, actor Jim Burnette graces Poo-Bah with a vocal touch of multiple personality disorder. In one scene he switches from a jowly—Nixonian?—chief justice to a Scottish chancellor of the exchequer, before indulging as a doting personal attorney: one who sounds more than a bit like Fran Drescher.

Erin Moorman, Jim Burnette & Stuart Albert in "The Mikado." Photo by Joe Cohn.
  • Erin Moorman, Jim Burnette & Stuart Albert in "The Mikado." Photo by Joe Cohn.

Musically, there’s much to praise: the lovely close harmonies on “Three Little Maids from School,” the near-fugue of the first-act trio “I Am So Proud,” and the comic interpretation which nimbly turns the madrigal “Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day” into a four-part dirge. Even more notable: the lovely balance maintained between orchestra and singers throughout the show.

Yes, strings, winds and brass each sounded thin at one point or another during the production, with momentary disturbances in intonation. A male chorus with noticeably fewer members had difficulty on a couple of occasions matching a more robust women’s chorus. And actors including Lumpkin and Palmer momentarily experienced audibility problems when they were directed to turn their back on the audience.

But most of these musical bumps in the road smoothed out immediately. The undeniable quality of ensemble and the richness of its sound filled the Carolina Theater, and convinced me, from early on, that this show was in good hands. As strong leads filled the room with clear, capable voices, buoyed by an orchestra that only needed more members, it was clear that this group knew what they were doing. Since it was, a near-capacity crowd was freed to enjoy Gilbert and Sullivan’s delightful—if technically daunting—confection.

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