Were I to become a powerful potentate like a very modern Mikado, I’d hire — or if necessary, dragoon — the Hypocrites into service as combination court jesters and house band. Mine would be a happy realm, with merry melodies and silly costumes all around and many popping balloons.
In lieu of waiting for my ship to come in, you’ll want to get down to Oberon by Sunday to see the Chicago troupe’s version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” as smile-inducing a production as you are likely to see this season.
The performers, who double as the orchestra, frolic about an open, vaguely circus-themed set consisting of a balloon pit and a few benches, which they share with the audience. Some paying customers were prodded to move half a dozen times or more to make way for singing and dancing, but they seemed happy about it.
One audience member was even asked to perform a pantomime beheading and did so with a grin. Quite badly, though, as the cast member playing his intended victim pointed out to general laughter. What fourth wall?
As adapted and directed by the Hypocrites’ founding artistic director, Sean Graney, and co-directed by Thrisa Hodits, the performance runs a snappy 80 minutes or so. It retains most of the original’s breathless wordplay and absurd plotting, bolstered by gags about “Top Chef” and Home Depot – and a few bars of what sounded like Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” (The Hypocrites have done this sort of thing before, with a well-received “Pirates of Penzance” that played here a couple of years ago.)
Graney has taken the fictional setting of Titipu out of Japan, avoiding the racism issue that dogs some productions by making it an imaginary land of no particular address. If you don’t know the plot, it doesn’t really matter. There are misbegotten romances, strange rules about marriage and capital punishment, and well, it doesn’t feel like much of a spoiler to tell you there’s a happy ending.
What does matter are the performances, starting with the very funny Shawn Pfautsch as the energetic, idealistic, and lovelorn troubadour Nanki-Poo. He also doubles as the less-than-lovely Katisha, a Nanki-Poo-obsessed Church Lady-type with beehive hairdo, cat’s-eye glasses and, uh, saxophone. Quick change for the win!
Emily Casey brings the production its true heart as Yum-Yum, who is drawn to Nanki-Poo even though she is betrothed to another. Her lovely solo number, “The sun whose rays are all ablaze,” is the closest thing to a showstopper here, even coming when it does, right after intermission.
Intermission, by the way, lasts one minute. Get those drinks fast.
The rest of the gang play their hearts out on guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, accordion, and several other instruments (spoons!). Acting standouts were comically craven Matt Kahler as Pooh-Bah of many jobs and Lauren Vogel as nervous Pitti-Sing, who ran her voice into dog-whistle territory for laughs.
Even this kind of inspired, weightless silliness floats on craft. Saugus native and Emerson grad Graney sat on the floor among the fans for much of the show with a big grin, but he spent that intermission taking notes. And the real hero of the show may be stage manager Miranda Anderson, in perpetual motion in a polka-dotted costume, unobtrusively carrying away discarded costume pieces and musical instruments, dodging fans and cast alike while whispering into a headset to keep everything on track.
You’ll want to bring the kids. Even the beheading talk isn’t serious enough to trouble them, and a risqué line or two will go over their heads. Playing with the balloons is enthusiastically encouraged.
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.