On the giddy heels of their Margaritaville-inspired staging of The Pirates of Penzance, the Hypocrites gleefully take on another Gilbert and Sullivan standard with their promenade production of The Mikado. In embracing the sheer silliness of the plot—not to mention the rollicking score—director Sean Graney has created a fresh, funny take on a classic.
The first thing that (literally) hits you when you enter the funky Chopin basement space where The Mikado is in joyful residence: balloons. Hundreds of them. They give the place the feel of a grown-up version of a bouncy house, as audience members gleefully swat them at each other’s heads while waiting for lights to go down. Every time one pops, the cast takes a break from their pre-show strolling concert (performing on ukuleles, banjos, guitars, and washboards) and bursts into applause.
That spirit of irrational exuberance defines Graney’s Mikado. Leading the charge in this daffy tale of love and execution is Robert McClean as the besotted Koko, an immensely likeable dunderhead engaged to marry the winsome (and winsomely named) Yum-Yum (Emily Casey, nicely channeling her inner Betty Boop). Alas, Yum-Yum loves not Koko but Nanki-Poo (Shawn Pfautch), a penniless wandering minstrel. Further complications ensue thanks to the law of the land, which deems flirting a crime punishable by beheading.
Despite the constant threat of execution, there’s not a whit of seriousness in this three-ringed circus of a show (scenic designer Michael Smallwood’s big top-inspired set is just a hoot.) Upping the ante on the frivolity is the fact that Graney has double cast several key roles. As the formidable Katisha, Pfautch creates a memorable gorgon of a woman when he’s not playing the smitten, moony-eyed Nanki-Poo.
Of course the show wouldn’t work if the cast couldn’t do justice to Gilbert and Sullivan’s treacherous music and lyrics. Happily and without exception, the ensemble nails the complex vocals and plays up an orchestral storm on their various and sundry homespun instruments.
One more thing: As a promenade production, the audience is roaming throughout, moving with the cast as the scenes travel across the room. It’s a style that suits the musical well as the Chopin becomes a hive of kinetic storytelling activity.
The Hypocrites’ staging of The Mikado continues through January 13 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division. For more information, the-hypocrites.com.
Catey Sullivan is Chicago magazine’s contributing theatre critic.
Photograph: Gregory Hollis