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Pittsburgh Public Theater opens season with lavish staging of ‘The Mikado’

The last time the Pittsburgh Public Theater started its season with a musical, Ronald Reagan was president, folks were trying to puzzle out the mysteries of the Rubik’s Cube and “Cats” had just opened on Broadway.

Since its 1975 beginning with “The Glass Menagerie,” the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s season has most often led off with something serious and weighty.

After taking over the artistic director reins with the 2000-01 season, Ted Pappas has led with two classic comedies — “You Can’t Take It With You” (2000) and “Much Ado About Nothing” (2002) — and a Greek tragedy, “Medea” (2001).

Pappas decided to shake up people’s expectations by opening the 2003-04 season with the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “The Mikado.” It’s the Victorian creators’ most successful and best-known work, as well as a comedic Asian musical fantasy.

“I want to give it pride of place,” Pappas says. “I put it at the top of the season to put special emphasis on it as part of the theater canon. But I also wanted to shake up expectations of the season. … Theater shouldn’t be so regimented that certain plays have certain slots.”

In earlier Public Theater seasons, Pappas has directed Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S Pinafore” (2002) and “The Pirates of Penzance” (2000).

“This is the inevitable completion of the big three,” he says.

This time out, he’s both directing and choreographing “The Mikado,” an additional reason that he opted to put it at the start of the season.

“It’s a play that requires a great deal of energy on my part,” he says.

Scheduling it first also gave his technical staff the extra time to create the town of Titipu and its topsy-turvy world, where a tailor named Ko-Ko can be transformed into the Lord High Executioner and Nanki-Poo, a second trombonist in a traveling band, can outwit him and win the hand of Ko-Ko’s ward, Yum-Yum.

“This is the biggest production I’ve done since I’ve been here — and I’ve done some big shows here,” Pappas says. “It’s not that it’s complicated. It’s an extravagant production if done right. It’s fully wigged and has makeup, shoes, hats and an authentic, gigantic, phenomenal set. … I want a sense of grandeur, height and depth to it.”

In these days of tight budgets and careful seasons, Pappas enjoys having his fellow artistic directors ask him what he’s opening his season with. “I tell other artistic directors ‘The Mikado,’ and they’re opening with a play with one actor,” he says. “We’re raising the bar on our productions. But the worst thing that can happen to a company is getting comfortable. Getting comfortable with good enough is dangerous.”

To sing the roles, Pappas has put together a cast headed by Kenneth Kantor, who plays The Mikado. Kantor has performed as a principal artist with New York City Opera, and appeared on Broadway in musicals such as “Mame” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

Surrounding him are performers drawn from the worlds of opera, operetta and musical theater. “These are people from a generation who believe you have to be able to sing ‘La Traviata,’ ‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘Cats,'” Pappas says.

Staging “The Mikado,” although challenging, need not be expensive or risky, he says.

“A big show is not only about expenditures. They’re about imagination and taste and creative solutions. Excluding the most monumental works would be doing a disservice to our subscribers,” he says.

He also believes it will repay the investment of time and energy as a crowd-pleaser that will draw a variety of people.

“It helps with bringing new audiences into the theater,” he says. “These big shows attract big crowds. It’s a way of introducing them to what’s unique about the art form.”

Pappas also expects it will be enjoyed by people on a variety of levels. “Children love it because it’s fun. Opera lovers love it because the music is glorious and legitimate. Play goers love it because it’s literate and funny,” he says.

He’s also high on its artistic aspects.

” I love it because of the challenges. I like good parts for actors, and Gilbert and Sullivan wrote for a company of great actors. ‘The Mikado’ has more leads than the others. They had so many great actors, they had to write parts to encompass all of them. I like it because the parts are juicy and varied,” he says. “It has, hands-down, the most impressive first act finale of all time.”

Special ‘Mikado’ Events


‘A Public Spectacle’

What : A benefit for the Pittsburgh Public Theater.
When : 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26
Admission : $50. $25 for ages 26 and younger with ID.
Where : O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Downtown.
Details : (412) 316-1600 or www.ppt.org

On closing day for “The Mikado”The Pittsburgh Public Theater will make “A Public Spectacle” for, but not of, itself.

At 7:30 p.m., after the final matinee performance of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, some of the performers from the show will offer a cabaret-style entertainment of Broadway and opera show-stoppers on the O’Reilly stage. Their performances will be augmented by local guest artists such as Lenora Nemetz and Billy Hartung and maybe even some surprise talents brought in from Manhattan just for the concert.

“It’s a pretty special event, and something we’ve never done,” says Ted Pappas, Pittsburgh Public Theater’s artistic and managing director.

The concept came to him while he was holding auditions for “The Mikado.” The talents being showcased encompassed both musical theater and opera. “Their audition numbers were all so interesting,” says Pappas, who decided audiences should get to hear some of the selections he was enjoying.

‘Mondays with the Public’ lecture

What : “Genre Bending: Connections and Collisions Between Opera, Operetta and Musical Theater” will be the topic for discussion by members of the area arts community, including Pappas of Pittsburgh Public Theater; Van Kaplan, executive producer for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera; and Kenneth Kantor, who plays The Mikado.

When : 7 p.m. Monday.

Admission : Free, but reservations strongly encouraged.

Where : Helen Wayne Rauh Rehearsal Hall, O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown.

Details : (412) 316-1600.

Dominion Family Day Events

What : Families can get a behind-the-scenes look at the props, costumes, wigs and performers who create the world of “The Mikado” before attending a 2 p.m. performance of this Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Refreshments will be served. Children will receive special gift bags.

When : From 12:45 p.m. Saturday and Oct. 11, 18 and 25

Admission : $12 for ages 7 through 17 with valid ID and $18 to $24.50 for accompanying adults.

Where : O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown.

Details : (412) 316-1600.

Additional Information:

Details

‘The Mikado’

Produced by: Pittsburgh Public Theater

When : In previews through Thursday. Opens Friday and continues through Oct. 26 with performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturday and Oct. 11, 18, 23 and 25; 7 p.m. Oct. 21.

Admission : $36 to $53; $12 for full-time students or those 26 and younger, with valid ID in advance for all performances except Friday and Saturday evenings, when they are available at the door only, one hour prior to curtain.

Where : O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Downtown.

Details : (412) 316-1600 or www.ppt.org


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