Playwright: Gilbert & Sullivan. At: The Hypocrites at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.. Tickets: 1-773-989-7352; www.the-hyporcites.com; $28. Runs through: Jan. 13
If Gilbert & Sullivan is something you take in traditional dress or not at all, then this Mikado is not your cup of sake. Indeed, it isn't even Japanese (more below) as boiled down by auteurist director Sean Graney and musical director Kevin O'Donnell. It is, however, an insouciant 80 minutes of high-spirited fun, accompanied by a slight aerobics workout in Graney's promenade staging which keeps audiences and performers in motion. With the astonishing absence of "I've Got a Little List," Graney and O'Donnell squeeze in all The Mikado's greatest hits, albeit most of them in truncated form. They've also chopped a great deal of the dialogue, but what remains is surprisingly faithful to Gilbert.
The reduction mostly is skillful. It emphasizes Gilbert's wit by thinning out his sometimes heavy-handed dialogue (although the performers speed through much without savoring it), while the musical editing turns Sullivan's glorious tunes into hummable pop-music hits. The intimate setting aids the clarity of the lyrics, which the touchy Gilbert would have appreciated (indeed, insisted upon). The cast of 10 double as the chorus and orchestra, playing in various combinations accordion, concertina, violin, flute, clarinet, mandolin, banjo, saxophone, drums, gong, guitars and the saw (an effective surprise in "Tit-Willow"). These are like the talented kids who put on shows in high school, imbuing the production with a spirit of youthful spontaneity.
The cast of singing actors (not acting singers and there is a difference) is predictably uneven, but they pull off Sullivan's more-difficult-than-it-sounds music with generally solid results and easy grace (Andra Velis Simon is the vocal director). I've seen most of them in non-musical shows so their musical chops are real surprise, among them Sean Pfautsch essaying both tenor Nanki-Poo and profound contralto Katisha, Robert McLean as Ko-Ko, Emily Casey as Yum-Yum (and the Mikado, although most of the singing role is cut) and Matt Kahler as Pooh-Bah.
Graney has double-cast Nanki-Pook/Katisha (Pfautsch) and Yum-Yum/The Mikado (Casey), an awkward decision since the characters often are onstage at the same time, and one with no discernible merit except reducing the cast size (if that's meritorious). Also, eliminating all references to Japan in words or design robs the show of context. Michael Smallwood's scenic design is a colorful little two-ring circus, complete with balloons and a grandstand (and a bar mixes potent $5 drinks). The company is a clown troupe, even the stage manager (costumes by Alison Siple). I figured they would rewrite the show's sharp political satire about corruption to fit Chicago/Illinois, but they didn't except for two passing jokes. The Mikado is an excellent romp, but it is its own reason for existence when it might have been just a touch more.