By Chris Jones
A few innovative theaters have started offering child care somewhere in their building. But for its outrageously enjoyable and inclusive new take on “The Mikado,” The Hypocrites upped the ante in a way that would have made old W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan choke on those Victorian notions of the bairn being seen but not heard.
In one corner of the basement of the Chopin Theatre in Wicker Park sits a bar serving fruity adult cocktails with colorful names. In another resides a mosh pit filled with balloons, which, on Sunday afternoon, was filled with wriggling, thrilled-to-bits children (and a couple of animated adults) who were so entranced as to free their parents to drink one of those aforementioned cocktails and actually enjoy the stellar rendition of “Three Little Maids from School.” And when one of those light-opera-loving munchkins happened to pop a balloon, the entire proceedings halted not for admonition of the miscreant, but for a rousing communal cheer.
“The Mikado,” which is about the most fun you can have in a Chicago theater with your family this holiday season, can truly be said to be a show for almost everyone. You just don’t want this show to end. Child haters can stay in the hipster sections, where couples cuddle. Those who can’t (or grumps who won’t) move around during this promenade production get their own raised seating section, far from the balloons.
Sean Graney’s immersive production of the third most famous G&S operetta (after “The Pirates of Penzance” and “HMS Pinafore”) is his second experiment with operetta. His 2010 production of “Pirates” (now playing in repertory with “The Mikado”) was such a hit in Chicago, it subsequently traveled to the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. — and is having a reprise mainstage engagement there next year. “The Mikado” is every bit as good, if not better.
I recall in 2010 writing caveats in my “Pirates” review along the lines of: this is a great time, but you have to live without stellar acting and singing. No such disclaimer is necessary with “The Mikado.” Well, obviously, we are not at the Lyric Opera nor the Light Opera Works, and a banjo can’t replace a full orchestra. But it can be a lot funnier. And regardless of the tony surroundings, “The Mikado” always is staged as a self-aware pastiche. It won’t work any other way.
Not only is the fun here more involving and experiential, but the vocals from such singers as Matt Kahler, who plays Pooh-Bah, and, especially, Shawn Pfautsch, who plays the combination of Nanki-Poo and Katisha (yes, it can be done) need no apology. I’d stack up Pfautsch’s hilariously intimidating Katisha against any D’Oyly Carte characterization, any day of the week, and Emily Casey’s spunky Yum Yum is just as Yum Yum as it needs to be. She also turns her skills to the title role.
Graney’s modus operandi with this very clever little niche — ideally suited to his talents — is to stage the shows with about 10 actors sharing some kind of fun, experiential environment with their audience. (“Pirates” has a Caribbean vibe; “The Mikado,” where Japanese characters have always behaved like they were London parliamentarians, wisely stays away from race and place and is realized in a kind of three-ring circus.) Graney’s use of promenade-style movement has greatly increased in sophistication over the decade or so I’ve been watching him experiment, and all the switching around in “The Mikado,” which features a joyous set and costumes from Michael Smallwood and Alison Siple, has a new smoothness and ease that the diverse audience at The Hypocrites clearly has embraced. In our tough city, artful, innovative shows that can spark grins, smiles and communal good feeling are crucial to be our well being, especially in winter. This is one such show for all.