Gilbert & Sullivan operetta The Mikado opens at Englert

BY BRIAN ALBERT | JULY 28, 2011 7:20 AM

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The lights of the Englert Theatre will cast purple and pink hues on the closed stage curtain at tonight's performance. Dozens of musicians, playing scales and tuning instruments, will fill the air with a mish-mash melody of trombones, violins, and more.

This evening, the curtain will open on the University of Iowa Martha-Ellen Tye Opera Theater's presentation of the operetta,The Mikado.

William Theisen scurried about Monday night during the company's first dress rehearsal, speaking with the orchestra conductor and sound crew to ensure everything was in order for the production. The lights finally dimmed at 7 p.m., signaling the start of the show.

Performances of The Mikado will take place 8 p.m. today, Friday, and Saturday and 2 p.m. July 31 at the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St. Admission is $20 for nonstudents, $15 for seniors, $10 for youth, and $5 for UI students with university IDs.

Originally written by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, operetta director Theisen described the famous production as the duo's masterpiece — the epitome of their talent and creativity.

"It's a great show that's more like a Broadway show than an opera," he said. "It's got songs and scenes. And they're funny. It's really different from their other work."

The librettist and composer wrote the piece in 1870s London during a period when Japanese exposition swept away the English people, creating a slapstick, Kabuki-style play. The Mikado is set in the fictional Japanese town of Titipu. A beautiful young school girl named Yum-Yum is engaged to Ko-Ko, a tailor who through a strange turn of events inherited the position of Lord High Executioner. Yet Yum-Yum loves Nanki-Poo, a romantic, wandering performer.

The strong Japanese influence is further evident in the costume design, which features elaborate, pale face makeup and elegant fans and apparel.

At Monday's rehearsal, eight men donned different colored kimonos and stormed the stage, their pastel shaded outfits complementing the dominant light pinks, blues, and purples of the set props. As they belted out an upbeat tune, the actors used the "snap" of an opening fan to mirror the musical tempo.

Theisen said the performers involved have incredible talent, and most roles require a "triple threat" performer capable of acting, singing, and dancing.

"Typical choreography is already pretty difficult for people to learn, but we're having actors learn how to twirl and dance with fans," Theisen said. "It's a whole new element."

Adam Webb, a University of Iowa graduate student who portrays Nanki-Poo, said he can attest to the rigorous requirements.

"It's a tough role," he said. "There's a lot of singing involved, but the real challenge is how you play the comedy. We can't embellish too much, or else jokes will be lost on the crowd."

To ensure the jokes are understood, certain lines of the operetta have been updated. In one humorous scene, the Lord High Executioner proclaims he has a roster of people who wouldn't be missed should they be beheaded. After retrieving a list spanning the entire length of the stage, he proceeds to sing about them — Lady Gaga, Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump. And Rupert Murdoch.

The producers also exercise a form of self-aware humor — the executioner also threatens to kill sleeping audience members, the play's crew, and the music conductor, William LaRue Jones.

"The list originally contained some pretty obscure names," Theisen said. "Even if you did some good research, you probably wouldn't find them all."

And because the operetta features many jokes, he said, the performance should appeal to a larger, younger crowd. He said he believes opera often has an elitist, negative stigma about it, pushing the curious away.

"Our job in the 21st century is to make opera more accessible in the Americas," he said. "We can do that through comedy, and we can do it by having more operas in English."

Webb said he's glad to be working on a fun, English-language project rather than a "stuffy" opera.

"People shouldn't be afraid of this show by any means," he said. "It's fun, it's hilarious, and we're going to have supertitles on screens."

Jones, the director of orchestral studies in the UI School of Music, said even the music varies from typical opera music.

"The play is light and funny, so the music really reflects that," Jones said. "It's not opera music in the sense of something traditional like Mozart. Think more comical and fun."

The cast and crew have been busy preparing since the middle of June. The remainder of the month consisted of line and song memorization. As July rolled around, piano rehearsals commenced.
From start to finish, the entire Mikado production time was a mere six weeks.

"We're dealing with a truncated schedule here, but everyone's making the best of it," Jones said. "People learned their parts and learned their music got ready quickly, so you can tell they're dedicated individuals."

Webb attributed much of the play's smooth development to Theisen and his years of experience.

"This is my first show with [Theisen], but he's got a very clear idea of what the comedy is and how this show should unfold," Webb said. "He's got the right energy for this type of work."

Theisen works full time as the artistic director of the Skylight Opera Theatre in Milwaukee. He directed operas for the University of Iowa more than a decade ago, and he has directed over 100 productions overall.

"I've been hired many, many times in many places to direct Gilbert and Sullivan," Theisen said. "But it's always fun to work here in Iowa City. I love this place, and the Englert is a perfect venue."

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