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USU'S `MIKADO' CONVEYS PLENTY OF SPIRIT, SPUNK

Gilbert and Sullivan penned "The Mikado" a century ago, yet theater groups still relish a chance to resurrect it. The musical is like a fine, old artifact, a shining tribute to an era gone by.

It's a vase from the Ming Dynasty.One reason the musical's now a period piece and bit dated, of course, is the change in our social mores. British Victorians mugging and cracking bad jokes in kimonos and Oriental makeup feels uncomfortably like 19th-century Americans parading in black face. (But let's face it. Seen from the socially conscious 1990s, Nelly's insensitive racism in "South Pacific" dulls even her glow.)

Still, "The Mikado" embodies some of the freshest lyrics and most singable melodies Gilbert and Sullivan produced. And those are the elements USU Opera Theater emphasizes in this benefit production.

The company's budget and talent pool are small, but the good news is the USU group has managed to mount a saucy, energetic "Mikado," a show full of the spirit and spunk found in the best Gilbert and Sullivan.

"The Mikado" is a tongue-in-cheek romance of sorts, the story of Nanki-Poo, a wandering minstrel with royal blood in his veins. He falls for Yum-Yum (played on alternate nights by Laurie Bean and Jennifer Evertsen), but soon a triangle develops. Ko-Ko, the incompetent high executioner (Todd Craghead and Kevin Rolph), thinks Yum-Yum's pretty yummy, too. So he and Pooh-Bah (Gary Dunn, Hyte Johnson) plot a way to pirate the girl from Nanki-Poo, the "second trombone" of her dreams.

Most of the trappings for the Logan show - the lighting, makeup, choreography - are professional, though somewhat uninspired. Costumes are superb, scenery strong and the acoustics are very good.

And at times the show really takes flight. Usually those times involve the voice of tenor Michael Ballam (as Nanki-Poo) and Dean Madsen's first-rate orchestra.

Ballam, with his warm, warbling voice, sings like a classically trained Irish tenor. It's a voice well-suited for the hall, the production and even the community. (Ballam and John Mauldin spell each other in the lead role.)

Madsen's lush but controlled reading of the score underpins the performance throughout.

As you might fear, casting is not especially deep here. But a couple of performances do merit mention. Gary Dunn as Pooh-Bah - the bureaucratic man of many hats - is winning with a blustery portrayal that allows the audience to peek behind the mask at the man's insecurities. Kevin Rolph is manic and fun as Ko-Ko. And though some pitch and projection problems hamper Vickey DeHek as Katisha, she swaggers and struts with great effect.

As the great "Mikado" himself, Bill Meyer shows a ragged edge and a few seams at times but generally holds the line.

In the end, the Capitol Theater "Mikado" probably would not be able to go one on one with a Pioneer Memorial Theatre production, but the product is far from community theater. In fact, most Salt Lake theatergoers would think the Logan version a very pleasant surprise.