The set up: If you think there's nothing better in musical theater than a work by William S. Gilbert (book and lyrics) and Arthur S. Sullivan (music), you probably already know their exceptionally entertaining 1885 operetta. However, if you're in any way unfamiliar with these two giants of the stage -- and innovators they were -- then scurry over to the Wortham Theater Center and partake of this duet's most wondrous pleasantry, performed by our own internationally celebrated Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston.
This goofy tale tells of KoKo (Alistair Donkin), Lord High Executioner in the city of Titipu, Japan, vying with Nanki-Poo (Joshua LaForce), disguised son of the emperor, for the love of Yum-Yum (Abigail Dueppen), fresh out of school and not as innocent as an ingénue should be. Surrounding the trio is a host of loonies who skewer English pretension: the self-aggrandizing Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else (Dennis Arrowsmith); Katisha (Sarah L. Lee), a gorgon on the make for young Nanki-Poo; and the Mikado himself (Ralph L. Katz), who's terribly sorry to have missed the latest execution. Everything is broadly played like English pantomime and as jolly as an English music hall, and except for a few too many forced pratfalls, Donkin's direction is Gilbert-approved. Especially appealing is soprano Dueppen's yummy Yum-Yum, pure of voice and nuttily confident that she must be the most beautiful girl in all Japan. Arrowsmith is appropriately smug as comic snob Pooh-Bah, the total functionary.
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The company's enunciation isn't perfect, and the hastily ticking side-titles are always a sentence or two behind the singers, so a lot of Gilbert's patented lyrics are lost in the moment and the humor dissipated, but the dialogue scenes manage to restore the freshness. Tom Boyd's paper-screen and painted wood beams have a look of fine vase painting, and Bonnie Holt Ambrose's costumes are suitably silked and sumptuous. Now, how do we jump-start maestro Dr. Brian Runnels, who seems to have fallen asleep at the podium? Let's kick it up a notch, shall we?
Except for the Society's annual summer performance, G&S's work is rarely seen in Houston. This isn't the definitive Mikado, but it's bloody good -- thank you choristers -- and it's the only one we've got. So go, already.
Through July 24. Cullen Theater at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. 713-627-3570. $25-$46.