Runs through May 18 at freeFall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; 7 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 2 p.m. Sat. and Sun.
$29-$44, $26-$41 students andseniors, 727-498-5205, freefalltheatre.com
Glen Gover really ought to be better known. I first came to admire his work five years ago, when he played a troubled psychologist in Stageworks’ Shining City, and I was just as enthusiastic about his Sancho Panza a few years later in freeFall’s Man of La Mancha
. In the first of these he was a fragile sufferer, trying painfully to help a client through a trauma when his own psychological state was precarious; and in the latter, he was Don Quixote’s loving, compassionate companion, as much father as son, overlooking nothing, forgiving everything. On the basis of these two performances alone, I concluded that Gover was one of the best actors in the Bay area, one whose inclusion in a show was reason enough for attending. But then he didn’t turn up in anything else that I saw, and I admit, I more or less forgot him.
I shouldn’t have. Gover is back at freeFall these days, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado
, and he turns out to be as richly talented in comedy as he is in drama. Gover plays Ko-Ko, the town of Titipu’s Lord High Executioner, and he’s hilarious as he fights for the love of his young ward Yum-Yum, a woman who’d rather mate with wandering minstrel (or so he claims) Nanki-Poo. Ko-Ko’s terribly unfit for the role of executioner — he wouldn’t hurt a cockroach — and to make matters worse, he himself has been sentenced to death for the crime of flirting. With this and more ridiculous material to work with, Gover has a field day. He’s frenetic, pathetic and determined to stay alive even if it means sacrificing his fiancée to his rival for a month. Expressing rapid changes of emotion with his amazingly elastic face, fast-talking himself out of one quandary and into another, Gover is a delight to watch and hear, and always surprising. This is as professional a job of acting as you’re likely to see anywhere.
And it comes in the midst of a universally strong cast, one in which all parts, including women, are played by men (I don’t see that this is illuminating, but hey, it works, so who’s complaining?). Dick Baker is the besotted Nanki-Poo, in reality a member of the royal family who’s escaped from the court rather than marry cougar Katisha, impersonated amusingly by Matthew McGee. McGee’s Katisha is dressed by director Eric Davis and made up by Scott Daniel to become the perfect nightmare bride, the one that wakes you at midnight in a cold sweat, with teeth chattering. McGee nearly steals the show — it’s amazing how quickly he gets the whole audience on his side — but Gover’s Ko-Ko has more stage time, as does Emanuel Carrero as everyone’s favorite love object Yum-Yum.
Carrero’s Yum-Yum is impeccable: demure and fetching, coy and lyrical, so sure that she’s beautiful that it hardly matters that she’s not. Her emotional opposite is Pooh-Bah, played by Larry Alexander as a stiff-upper-lip Englishman who imperiously disdains just about everything that takes place around him. And then there’s Patrick Ryan Sullivan as the Mikado himself, a fearsome, barking warrior who doesn’t have a clue as to the stratagems used by lesser mortals to preserve themselves. Of course he’s distressed that no executions have taken place recently; a tyrant like this demands blood as proof of his power.
Which brings me to W. S. Gilbert’s world-popular libretto. Davis and company have updated it in places — especially in the song “I’ve Got a Little List” — so that we hear about Obamacare, Alex Sink, Nancy Grace and several other contemporary issues and personages. But most of it doesn’t need changing: It’s witty and ingenious and unfailingly literate. Davis’ direction is first class, and the costumes he designed, including many striking kimonos, are among the most colorful and inventive of any I’ve seen in years. Matt Davis’ beautiful Japanese backdrop is all the set that the operetta needs, and the onstage ensemble’s musical accompaniment is alternately lovely and ebullient. This show easily lives up to freeFall’s usual standards of acting and design.
Most exciting of all, this show has Glenn Gover — one of the most unsung of top actors, and one local audiences should surely know. If for no other reason, see The Mikado for his Ko-Ko. And be reminded that, in the theater at least, alchemy works. This performance is golden.