It almost felt wrong to laugh this much at an opera. Sure, The Mikado, by Gilbert and Sullivan, is a comedy, but the performance by The Collegiate Chorale at Carnegie Hall on Monday night, featuring an inspired line-up of Broadway stars, elevated the material to an entirely new level of comedy.
The Mikado centers around a village where flirting has been declared a crime punishable by beheading. However, the head executioner has been found guilty of it himself, despite being engaged to his youthful ward Yum-Yum, who is in love with the wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo. And Nanki-Poo has a few secrets of his own that are following him from town to town. Political and romantic entanglements promptly ensue, as well as a great deal of laughter.
Conducted by Ted Sperling (who also participated in a few of the scenes), the concert starred Jason Danieley as the romantic Nanki-Poo and Kelli O’Hara as his love interest Yum-Yum. The dapper and handsome Danieley emphasizes the innocent romance of Nanki-Poo, while O’Hara presents Yum-Yum as an equally innocent, sweet woman. Thankfully, neither of them resort to the cliches typical of romantic ingenues.
Ko-Ko, otherwise known as The Lord High Executioner, is played by the brilliant comedian Christopher Fitzgerald. The short and slight Fitzgerald, who was outstanding on Broadway in Young Frankenstein and Finnian’s Rainbow, presents Ko-Ko as naive and somewhat innocent man despite his power over other men’s lives. A skilled physical comedian with seemingly endless energy, Fitzgerald is an absolute delight to watch onstage. His performance of “Little List,” in which he ticks off the names of people he would like to behead and features updated lyrics that reference Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich and the Kardashians, is absolutely delightful.
It’s difficult to steal a scene from Fitzgerald, let alone Danieley or O’Hara, but the wondrous Victoria Clark does just that. Her performance of Katisha is nothing short of hilarious. Obsessed with marrying Nanki-Poo, Katisha has followed him throughout his travels determined to win his affection. With wild hair, flailing arms and a soaring voice, Clark presents the romantically obsessed woman as a sympathetic, insecure and even endearing woman. And her duets with Fitzgerald are undoubtedly the evening’s highlights.
Amy Justman and Lauren Worshman are lovely as Yum-Yum’s friends, and Jonathan Freeman is delightful as Poo-Bah. Steve Rosen is a solid Pish-Tush. And as the titular character, Chuck Cooper was clearly having a very fine time onstage. A jolly presence onstage, he appeared a bit too jovial to actually be the man behind the terrifying rulings.
The Mikado is an extremely clever show, as well as being extremely relevant. As Cooper sang cheerfully about punishments fitting crimes, I found myself thinking of the recent ruling by the Supreme Court about strip-searching people. And the idea of flirting being a capital offense does not seem that outlandish in the wake of the hysteria about birth control. However, the rapid-fire lyrics and melodies are so quick that a few of the witticisms are left in the dust. I left this one-night only concert longing for a recording of this cast. It would be money well spent.