Review by John Lombard
The Mikado is Gilbert & Sullivan's masterpiece, an inspired burlesque of Japan - as seen through the eyes of Victorian Englishmen. Queanbeyan Players' production of this well-worn classic struggles to rise above an amateur standard in execution, but still woos us with the spirit and commitment of its cast.
In the town of Titipu - ostensibly in Japan but in manners and customs much closer to England - the unusually creative Mikado (or divine Emperor, played by Peter Smith) has issued an edict that all firtation is henceforth to be punished with decapitation. And not just with the small guillotine.
The hapless Ko-Ko (Matt Greenwood), first to fall afoul of this new law, is nonetheless given a stay of execution - by being appointed Lord High Executioner. As the person responsible for his own execution, he can hardly cut anyone else's head off until he has cut his own off, and so the town is able to obey the letter of the law without actually having to enforce it.
Now the most important person in his town and kow-towed to by all Ko-Ko sets about marrying his delicious ward, the appropriately named Yum-Yum (Alyssa Morse). Unfortunately for Ko-Ko, the blithe minstrel Nanki-Poo (Lachlan McGinness) strolls into town and effortlessly pockets Yum-Yum's heart, and from there Ko-Ko's fortunes begin to tumble.
Ko-Ko - who can be seen as the hero, the antagonist, or even an anti-hero - is a luckless beta male, just vindictive enough to lose our sympathy but harmless enough to never be a threat. He is a coward, but when given the opportunity to be ruthless cannot take it. Nanki-Poo, by contrast, is willing to risk everything to get Yum-Yum, and does it with a light heart. McGinness and Morse are fun as the obnoxiously young and handsome lovers, but Greenward's Ko-Ko gives the audience the most joy.
Gilbert's script is wordy and the cast articulate it beautifully, but it can be easy to get lost in the finer points of the plot. It doesn't help that the plot doesn't always make a great deal of sense. We never find out who Ko-Ko was in trouble for flirting with. And late in the play when Ko-Ko finally does have to execute someone, he struggles to find a candidate, despite less than an hour earlier delivering a patter song where he details all of the people he could execute at no loss to society.
The production begins with a lengthy overture before the curtain is raised, and this sets the tone for the rest of the show. The performance of the music by the orchestra is gorgeous, but the cast often struggles with singing and dancing. The dancing in particular is very basic, almost making a joke out of the Japanese setting by adopting still poses. The singing has highlights (Janene Broere as Katisha in particular excels, and Lachlan McGinness warmed up after a slightly breathless start) but for the most part is uninspiring.
Nonetheless, the production has enormous charm. Terry Johnson as aristocat Pooh-Bah cannot sing - to the point where it begins to feel like a joke - but is sublimely cast and utterly hilarious in the part. Casting is in general superbly done, with the parts drawing out the best in the performers.
Both Ko-Ko and the Mikado pepper their songs with contemporary references that drew the biggest laughs of the night, with a jab at Canberra's light rail in particular getting a roar from the audience. There is also fine comic acting from Tristan Foon as flunky Pish-Tush and Anna Greenwood as big-noting schoolgirl Pitti-Sing.
This is amateur theatre at its best: no pretensions, commitment, and a lot of heart. Despite lacking the talent we see elsewhere in Canberra musical theatre, Queanbeyan Players has put together a production that is disarming and entertaining.