There's silly Gilbert and Sullivan and then there's really silly Gilbert and Sullivan. The Newport Theatre Arts Center's "The Mikado," which is blissfully campy from the hem of its gay kimonos to the tip of its twirling parasols, is definitely in the really silly category.
Director Kent Johnson and the cast have fun with this durable comic opera about romance and related shenanigans during the days of Imperial Japan, and the result is irresistible. The entire production is infused with a droll playfulness that can be found across the board from the half-dance, half-mime choreography to the broad but not blustery acting to the rich and nicely blended singing.
The hero, Nanki-Poo (Mark Perkins), appears as a strolling minstrel, sort of a singing cowboy a la Gene Autry but decked out in standard peasant garb. He has come looking for his sweetheart, Yum-Yum (Elaine Houssels), a tittering birdbrain who's betrothed to the powerful but woefully inept Ko-Ko (Scott Ratner), the Lord High Executioner. An overwrought Nanki-Poo decides to commit suicide, and Ko-Ko, hoping to meet his execution quota for the season, talks the smitten youth into being his victim in exchange for one month of marriage to Yum-Yum.
The absurdity of the plot, which gets more complicated with each scene, is fully exploited by Johnson as well as by each cast member. Johnson finds opportunities to be creative everywhere. Just to name a few of his innovations: Large fans carried by male courtiers become comic symbols of the executioner's ax; Ko-Ko's noble carriage is nothing more than a child's tiny tricycle; every time the Mikado is mentioned, no matter how casually, the characters genuflect wildly. Silly stuff. But effective too.
It seems unfair to give one performer special attention because everyone excels, but Ratner is especially notable. His Ko-Ko is a romping satire of the Peter Principle; he is the perfectly imperfect bureaucrat who has no idea how to do his job. Through a portrayal that features a little of Don Knotts' palpitating manner and a lot of sharp comedy timing, Ratner becomes the show's unchallenged star. He's also responsible for adding updated lyrics to "Behold the Lord High Executioner" that give a shin kick to, among others, Madonna and Sean Penn, Wally George, President Reagan and even anyone who would tamper with Gilbert and Sullivan's sacred compositions.
As the young couple, Perkins and Houssels are engaging. Perkins handles his tenor duties well and is an able comic actor who intelligently plays Nanki-Poo in a relatively low key. Houssels has the cast's finest voice, a ringing and effortless soprano, and her fluttering portrayal of Yum-Yum is a delight. Also noteworthy are John Massey as Pooh-Bah, the corrupt official who puts a price tag on everything; Melissa Swift as Pitti Sing, one of Yum-Yum's best friends, and Steve Moritsugu as the big guy himself, the Mikado.
"The Mikado" runs through Oct. 4 at the Newport Theatre Arts Center at 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Call (714) 631-0288 for information.