“Off with their heads!” I vividly recall being terrorized as a preschooler hearing Walt Disney’s sadistic, loud-mouthed Queen of Hearts thunder these signature lines. I have since learned that decapitation as capital punishment is not exclusive to the fictional Queen of Hearts of Lewis Carroll and Walt Disney, but rather grim historical reality. Still, countless works of fiction – Carroll and his Disney offshoot included – have transformed it from this grisly punitive measure into a comic cliché. Gilbert and Sullivan’s show-stopping, family-friendly operetta The Mikado – with all its subtle stabs at both Victorian British trends and “big government” – is no exception to my observation mentioned above. Performed by countless groups to the point of near overproduction, this cheery little gem has been given a fresh makeover by the Lyric Opera of Chicago for its grand 2010-2011 season.

Dan Rest / Lyric Opera of Chiacgo
Dan Rest / Lyric Opera of Chiacgo

While the Lyric’s production remains faithful to Gilbert and Sullivan’s cheeky sparkle, this production is definitely not your grandfather’s Mikado. Rather than adhering to the expected kimonos and overall traditional Japanese atmosphere, the Lyric chose to re-set this satirical tale in 1922-era Japan, when Western influences were invading the country and intermixing with the country’s more traditional cultural symbols. Still, the Lyric chose to take the re-imagining even further by incorporating both visual and verbal gags regarding Chicago into the production, thus making the show even more relevant to the audience at hand. For example, in the opening scene, the background set was not some Imperial Japanese building, but rather the Chicago city hall. In the same spirit, when Ko-Ko attempts to cover up for executing Nanki-Poo, he tells the Mikado that Nanki-Poo has fled to “Skokie” (a nearby Chicago suburb), prompting floods of hearty laughter from the audience. Besides the re-setting and unusual props, the sets of this production were unlike other Lyric productions I have seen: Highly minimalistic, with only a prop or two per scene.

The cast was truly delightful, with a spunk and acting flare that would have made Gilbert and Sullivan proud. Each member – never a miscast and all with a wonderfully strong voice – sang, danced, and provoked frequent bouts of hearty laughter from the audience. British tenor Toby Spence and Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman were the most lively, affectionate, and faithful Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum, while American bass-baritone James Morris was the most authoritative yet secretly soft Mikado. On the more show-stopping side, Welsh bass-baritone Neal Davis proved to be the perfect Ko-Ko with an absolutely oily presence, slithering his way around the stage and frequently grimacing in disgust when speaking or singing. In the same light, British baritone Andrew Shore masterfully portrayed the pompous Pooh-Bah, never hesitating to arrogantly rattle off all his honors and thus provoking floods of laughter from the audience. Finally, returning American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe practically stole the show as Katisha, while Lyric conductor Sir Andrew Davies energetically led the orchestra through their energetically-charged numbers. A true delight for anyone seeking refuge from the popular, tragic, Otello/Madame Butterfly-like opera fare!

Still, in my opinion, I must admit that this delightful production had a few major drawbacks. First, I found the re-location of the story production to 1922-era Japan and the incorporation of some of the Chicago gags distracting and confusing . During the opening scene when the curtain revealed the Chicago city hall-like set, I felt a sense of bewilderment, which persisted throughout the production. Seeing traditionally-clad Japanese characters intermixed with flapper-clad ladies and gentlemen in British bowler hats disorientated me and left me fumbling to make out the story. Furthermore I was disappointed in the minimalistic sets and would have liked to see more concrete, elaborate sets. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed Gilbert and Sullivan’s eternally comic and catchy tunes, as well as the tasteful Chicago gags (e.g. the Skokie reference mentioned earlier), which I felt restored the original "bite" to the humor which Gilbert and Sullivan would have intended.

All in all, despite the drawbacks mentioned above, this “Mikado” production was overall highly delightful, family-friendly fare that should be on the “to-do” list of anyone seeking light-hearted entertainment this holiday season. Anyone entering the Civic Opera House during its run will undoubtedly walk away giggling and humming Gilbert and Sullivan’s truly memorable tunes. Even though many die-hard opera fans may decry the Lyric’s move to stage such light-hearted fare as blasphemous, I strongly believe that staging Gilbert and Sullivan in a “serious” opera house is not only a fine, musically-sound move, but also a great route in which to introduce youngsters and folks not savvy in classical music to the wonderful world of opera. So why wait? Get your tickets now and do something different outside of “The Messiah” and “The Nutcracker”!