As I walked into the lovely Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College to see a new production of the 2015 revision of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1895 comic operetta, The Mikado, by the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, I overheard the conversation of a couple in their thirties. Not only had they never seen The Mikado. They also didn’t know who Danny Kaye was. Sigh.
This, of course, is the problem for a lot of pre-modern theater. People don’t know these shows like they did sixty or more years ago. At least Gilbert and Sullivan’s shows were so popular in their day that they have spawned preservation societies like this one, intent on keeping their work alive. But it clearly is a challenge to make a show stuffed with dated nineteenth century references, and language as dense as Hamilton but even more remote, seem accessible to a modern audience.
Yet another even greater challenge to producers of The Mikado is that it is set in Japan. So it is traditionally performed by Anglo actors in Asian dress and stylized makeup, something which would raise a lot of cultural hackles today.
Both these problems are addressed in this production by some very ingenious work by director and choreographer David Auxier-Loyola. To start, he has written a prologue for the play which describes the actual events that inspired the writing of the show. It serves the purpose to set the scene.
At rise, we see Gilbert (a rather stiff Mr. Auxier-Loyola) and Sullivan (the wonderful David Macaluso) trying to wrestle the egos of their leading actors. The team had a successful play running at the Savoy Theater, Princess Ida, and producer D’Oylye Carte (Matthew Wages) wanted another show ready to follow it. But the team was blocked. Gilbert wanted to write a fantasy piece. Sullivan wanted a show with a “consistent” plot, and characters who sang appropriate songs instead of whatever witty ditty Gilbert penned.
The presence of an exhibition in London of Japanese artifacts (and an apocryphal story about getting hit on the head by a sword falling off the wall) leads to Gilbert getting knocked out and dreaming up the world of The Mikado. That world is a fantasy Japonesque setting which is clearly British underneath. The members of their acting company, still Anglo in appearance, play the various roles of the show, with pseudo-Asian, English-based nonsense names like Nanky-Poo, which is a child’s Briticism for a handkerchief , and Pish –Tush which means…well, Pish Tush!
The primary reason to set The Mikado in Japan was so Gilbert and Sullivan could safely poke fun at the British government and Victorian social mores. To make sure we understand that, and solve the cultural problem, Mr. Auxier-Loyola, with his excellent design team of Anshuman Bhatia (sets), Quinto Ott (costumes) and Benjamin Weill (lighting) have created a Victorian milieu overlaid with Asian visual elements. The women wear dresses with bustles, but have winged shoulders that appear to have escaped from The King and I. There is a very western looking train station backed by a scenic vista that looks like a Japanese print. It all works together quite brilliantly.
To lead us into the story, Gilbert becomes one of the Men of the Town, only later to appear as himself again to resolve the quite preposterous plot twist at the end of the story. The plot of The Mikado is a paper thin lunacy engineered so Gilbert and Sullivan can make jokes about English society and book-end their signature patter songs.
Nanky-Poo, sung by sweet-voiced John Charles McGlaughlin, comes to town posing as “A Wandring Minstel, I”, which is one of the song titles most remembered from this show. He is in love with the virginal and beautiful Yum-Yum, played by the truly delicious-looking and frequently funny soprano, Sarah Caldwell-Smith. But Yum-Yum is betrothed to her guardian, the tailor Ko-Ko, brilliantly brought to life by the Chaplin-esque singing comedian, David Macaluso. His performance is a Broadway caliber, high energy turn, worth seeing the show for by itself.
By royal decree, all flirting has been declared punishable by death. This was the authors’ swipe against Victorian prudery. Ko-Ko has been condemned to death for flirting, but the town leaders don’t want any bloodshed. So they appoint Ko-Ko as Lord High Executioner, assuming it would be too difficult to cut off his own head. Also, all the town leaders get rolled into one greedy persona, Pooh-Bah, who is wickedly and artfully played by Matthew Wages like a comedic Sybil on serious drugs, inhabited by seven different wacky personalities.
Yum-Yum is one of three sisters, the others played by Jessie Bond and Sybil Grey, who together sing the well-known “Three Little Girls from School.” Oddly, this number, which was conceived for three girls from the D’Oylye Carte Company who were equally small, is played by three girls of very different sizes, Ms. Bond seeming very tall indeed next to the others; which killed the sight gag.
The fly in the ointment of the plot is Katisha, an elderly lady in love with Nanki-Poo, from whom he ran away. She is played with real fury, expert comic timing, and unexpectedly genuine emotion by the powerful Caitlin Burke. When she comes to town to claim Nanky-Poo, a very convoluted plot follows in which he may or may not actually be killed. It’s all to please the Mikado, played by the show’s producer, and excellent bass-baritone, David Wannen.
To make the jokes tickle modern funny bones, the company takes great liberties with Gilbert’s lyrics, inserting jabs at everything from texting girls to our own political circus. I was surprised to learn they were mostly adlibbed or written by each of the cast members, with no authorial credit given. Kudos to all the witty talents on the stage, because these gags were highlights of the show for me.
That, however, showcases the main problem with reviving this show. A lot of the original text is still very creaky, and the songs are densely packed with words that are hard on modern ears. The comprehensibility problem was greatly exacerbated by terrible sound mixing. Neither I, nor the people around me as close as the sixth row, could properly hear and understand several of the principals over the orchestra much of the time. The voices were so different in strength that I was convinced the show wasn’t amplified at all. I was told there’s no sound designer, and they have to use the union guy whose contract runs with the theater. Somebody should wake him up.
On top of that, conductor, music director and company founder Albert Bergeret is apparently so overly familiar with the words of these songs he doesn’t seem to realize how bad the diction of his chorus is (although it did get generally better in the second act.) The tendency of opera singers to make every vowel a “shwah” on top of British accents doesn’t help. Give me the musical theater, where people singing in their native language are expected to be understood. It doesn’t help either that the faces of the chorus often looked carved from wood.
In my opinion, if you have to hear the album before you come see the show to understand the lyrics, whether this show or Little Jagged Pill (whose chorus also needs diction lessons), it’s a problem that should have been addressed
One very special treat of the evening was hearing the live orchestra of twenty-five players, who sounded quite lovely under Mr. Bergeret’s baton.
So if you’re already a devoted fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, and know the show, none of that will matter. Come enjoy it. If not, you’re bound to enjoy the performers anyway. Just sit close enough to hear them.