Heights Players’ ‘Mikado’ is riotous good fun

Heights Players’ ‘Mikado’ is riotous good fun
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

“The Mikado” is a big production — full orchestra, large ensemble, elaborate costuming — which makes it an ambitious choice for a community theater.

The Heights Players rise to the challenge, staging the Gilbert and Sullivan classic at its Brooklyn Heights space — though not without a few groans.

The comic operetta is set in the made-up Japanese town of Titipu, where the emperor – the Mikado – has just instituted a ban on flirting, with punishment by beheading. A wandering minstrel named Nanki-Poo has arrived, looking for his love, Yum-Yum, who, to his dismay, is to marry the Lord High Executioner, Ko-Ko, that day. To Ko-Ko’s dismay, he learns that the Mikado wants the executioner to do some executing, and he must come up with a head, fast, or be beheaded himself.

It’s all serious stuff — though really just a satire of British cultural mores of Gilbert and Sullivan’s times.

David Schaefer does a fine job at the piano, but a full orchestra is also missed during subtle moments, like when Nanki-Poo whips out his mandolin-like companion and strums a few chords. Instead of the anticipated accompaniment of plucking, it’s, yep, still the piano. It’s a small moment, but it makes you too aware of the company’s limitations in staging this show. (In one charming moment, though, in the absence of a curtain, Japanese lanterns rise to mark the start of the show).

Whatever orchestral limitations, it is more than made up by the sheer size of the Heights Players’ cast. There’s so many actors, in fact, that they often spill out into the aisles, mainly because they all can’t fit on the stage. When they’re not having fun with the crowd, the actors remain static, in the kabuki style, though it’s lifeless to have so many people on stage at one time with nothing happening.

But those gripes are minor considering the triumph of the music and lyrics. And, more important, the performances are enjoyable. Stephen O’Brien is a great Ko-Ko, well adept at the physical humor (after one back-bending feat, it’s evident this man does yoga), and he has his timing down. Akira Fukui as Nanki-Poo gives a charismatic, heartfelt performance, and he sings with a pretty tenor. His rapport with Yum-Yum (Renee Heitmann) is also fun to watch, and she strikes the right level of airheadedness.

Other good turns come from Jennie Mescon as the spunky Pitti-Sing, one of the “three little maids from school,” and the Mikado himself, Michel Schneider. He strikes a commanding figure on stage, and, arriving for only the second act, you wish he were there longer.

The best moment comes when the Lord High Executioner rattles off people who are on “his list” — those who we should, to put it delicately, get rid of — in the song “As Some Day it May Happen.” It’s customary at this point to replace Gilbert’s own dated list with more contemporary references (this was written in the mid-1880s, after all), and those who make the Heights Players’ “list” include drivers of ozone depleting SUVs, Facebook posters, twitters, and texters, Sudoku doers, Tea Partiers and a certain rouge politician “who can see Russia from her house.” The crowd went wild for it — the Heights Players certainly knows its audience.

Though marred at times by its own limitations, this “Mikado” wins you over in the end, just in time for the rousing finale.

“The Mikado” at the Heights Players [26 Willow Pl. between State and Joralemon streets in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 237-2752], now through Oct. 24. Tickets $20 for adults, $18 for seniors and children under 12. For info, visit www.heightsplayers.org.