Review: Gilbert & Sullivan Austin’s The McAdo

Spry rewrite of the classic operetta swaps kimonos for kilts

Holton Johnson as Pubagh (from left), Reagan Murdock as Coco, and Julius Young as Pischtusch in Gilbert & Sullivan Austin's The McAdo (Photo by David Little)

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'm an opera ignoramus and arguably the least qualified person in the room to be reviewing Gilbert & Sullivan Austin's current production of The McAdo.

The show is a revisioning of The Mikado, the popular ninth of 14 collaborations between librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. Written in 1885, set in Japan, and deemed offensive of late what with white actors playing clichéd Asian characters – a reflection of 19th century sensibilities and the fact that neither man had been to Japan. This new production keeps the text and score largely intact, but director Michelle Haché, music director Jeffrey Jones-Ragona, and designers Christine Jean-Jacques (choreography), Michelle Haché and Justin Dam (set), and Jennifer Rose Davis (costume) brilliantly transport the plot to the highlands of Scotland, where the population is just about as white as it gets. And though I've been to Scotland, that doesn't make me any more qualified to review this show.

What does is that you, dear reader, might be an ignoramus as well. It's easy to be discouraged by opera's intimidating length, off-putting absurdity, and bilingual prerequisite (typically Italian, French, or German). Or, like me, perhaps you were frightened by Wagner's Die Walküre as a child. But the works of Gilbert & Sullivan are not actually operas. They are comic operettas, which means shorter and built to question social norms and spoof British authority figures. And because they are in English, they are remarkably accessible – too accessible, it seems, for true opera aficionados like the Toronto Star's classic music columnist, who referred to Vancouver Opera's recent scheduling of H.M.S. Pinafore as "slum[ming]."

Shorter? Satirical? Snubbed? I'm in. And, based on The McAdo's opening night performance, so should you.

In the wacky world of The McAdo, a traveling musician named Nanky Doug (the charming tenor, Michael Kelley Dixon), who is really the son of the head clansman, the McAdo (a commanding and very funny Bob Beare), is in love with local commoner Wynn Somme (a delightful Mary Kettlewell, whose gorgeous soprano soars). Trouble is, she is betrothed to Coco (an inventive and thoroughly engaging Reagan Murdock), who was condemned to death for flirting before he was promoted to the post of Lord High Executioner. When the McAdo orders an execution, Coco realizes that he can't kill another person until he first kills himself, which sets in motion a preposterous scheme to keep everyone from losing their heads. With the assistance of the ambitious Pubagh (a splendid Holton Johnson), a government official in charge of everything, there's no shortage of running gags, increasingly preposterous twists, and lampooning turns.

Many of the show's many songs are accompanied by elaborately choreographed production numbers involving all or part of a talented 21-member chorus and an outstanding 20-piece orchestra. But one of the show's highlights is the wry patter number "As Some Day It May Happen" performed by Coco, who sings through a list of society's offenders who never would be missed. Apparently, lyrics to this song get revised by each company producing the work to reflect local peccadillos, and they are cleverly adapted here – written by Coco portrayer Murdock – to include hilarious, on-point references to Austin. "Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day" is one of the most beautifully written tunes and challenges the performers' ear for complex harmony, which Kettlewell, Dixon, Julie Allison, and Jay Young handle masterfully.

The plot's a hoot and the songs are remarkable, but what makes this production so pleasurable is the cast's absolute buy-in to the ridiculousness that is Gilbert & Sullivan. Rather than trying to be funny, the players trust the time-tested material to do the heavy lifting, embrace Haché's creative direction, and stay true to their characters' natures.

And though their Scottish brogue adds a wonderful layer of authenticity and lyricism to the proceedings, enunciation is sacrificed when Sullivan ramps up the tempo, which is often. Not a problem, since there's a screen above the stage that projects Gilbert's lyrics in real time.

Well sung. Well staged. Subtitled. I'm hooked. Next stop: Austin Opera for its upcoming performance of Rossini's The Barber of Seville.

The McAdo

Worley Barton Theater at Brentwood Christian School, 11908 N. Lamar, 512/474-5664

Running time: 3 hrs.
Due to COVID, all performances have been canceled. We wish the cast and crew a speedy recovery.

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