W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, as film director Mike Leigh showed us in Topsy-Turvy, didn't much care for each other. Both thought that their collaborations were not as meaningful as their "serious" work -- Gilbert wrote nonmusical dramas for the stage, and Sullivan's output of both sacred and secular music was prodigious. Yet the operettas that they created for the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company at the Savoy Theatre have not only survived intact for more than a century, in England they are surpassed only by the Beatles in popularity. The mainstay of countless British professional and amateur theater groups, the strains of such tongue-twisting classics as H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance have been ringing out from theaters, church halls, and gymnasiums since Britannia ruled the waves. G&S have done well in the colonies, too, and it's safe to say that somewhere in the world, on any night one chooses, someone is performing a G&S operetta. This weekend at the Dean Lesher Center in Walnut Creek, that honor falls to the Lamplighters and their production of The Mikado.
The Mikado is the best-loved of the thirteen operettas Gilbert and Sullivan wrote together. In its first incarnation at London's Savoy Theatre in 1885, it ran for 672 performances (nearly two solid years) -- not nearly as long as, say, Cats, but this was a different time. If you've seen Leigh's film you know, for example, that the members of the cast were horrified to learn that they would not be wearing their traditional girdles under the sumptuous costumes, and that Gilbert had to hire a woman from the tourist-attraction Japanese village at Knightsbridge to teach the women of the cast how to shuffle convincingly. Mania for all things Japanese was high at the time -- even if the English had no real understanding of Japanese culture, mores, or history -- and Victorian audiences flocked to the Savoy to see the star-crossed lovers. (It won't be a news flash to anyone who has seen The Mikado before: You won't learn thing one about Japan from this show. In fact, The Mikado has so little to do with Japan that in 1907, when Japan's Crown Prince Fushimi was scheduled to visit, Britain's Lord Chancellor ordered a ban on all performances of the operetta in any form -- even by marching bands -- for fear that Fushimi would take offense.)
Stripped of the kimonos, fans, torii (ceremonial gates), and the one actual Japanese song ("Miya Sama"), The Mikado is veddy, veddy British. Populated with petty bureaucrats, giggling schoolgirls, and swaggering nobles and burdened with absurd laws (when the Mikado decided to "make the punishment fit the crime," somehow flirtation became punishable by decapitation), the English village of Titipu is filtered through the topsy-turvy lens of the G&S genius. Nanki-Poo, son of the Mikado, has been accused of flirting with an older woman in his father's court, the bloodthirsty Katisha. The only way he can escape death is to marry her. So he bolts, tripping around the provinces disguised as a traveling minstrel. In sleepy Titipu he falls in love with Yum-Yum, the teenaged ward of Ko-Ko the tailor. Like all pretty young women who are wards, Yum-Yum is slated to marry her guardian.
Now, Ko-Ko is himself on trial for flirting. The townspeople, concerned for their own necks, elevate Ko-Ko to the highest rank, figuring that if he is made Lord High Executioner, he won't be able to execute himself, or anyone else (there's a very funny bit in the second act where Ko-Ko admits that he was going to learn how to behead people by starting with a guinea pig and working his way up). Nanki-Poo returns to Titipu, learns that Yum-Yum is going to marry someone else, and, disconsolate, prepares to kill himself. Ko-Ko, who needs to execute somebody to satisfy the Mikado, convinces Nanki-Poo to allow himself to be executed a month hence, in exchange for the chance to marry his love. Post-execution, they agree, Ko-Ko will marry the widow Yum-Yum.
It's an odd plan, one that might have stood a chance of working except that, of course, things start to fall apart. First, Katisha comes to town looking for her intended. Then Ko-Ko learns that if Nanki-Poo is executed, Yum-Yum must be buried alive. And here comes the Mikado's retinue! A plan is hatched, the lovers run away, and Ko-Ko must face the wrath of the Mikado -- and Katisha.
From a purely linguistic perspective, it's easy to see why the Savoy operettas endure. Gilbert did things with existing words that just should not work, while making up enchanting new ones to suit his purposes -- "Pooh-Bah" comes to mind.
Everyone knows that a "grand Pooh-Bah" thinks himself the lord of all he surveys, but how many know that the original Pooh-Bah was actually a minor functionary who gained tremendous power when the other officials quit and he took over all of their jobs -- and salaries? In his own words, "I can't help it, I was born sneering."
One of the great pleasures of watching a G&S show is the complex wordplay. Unfortunately, in the otherwise fine Lamplighters production, it's a strain to make out the words in many of the songs. In some places the singing is murky -- both Ko-Ko and the Mikado, for instance, have "little lists" of people deserving of execution ("As Some Day It May Happen" and "A More Humane Mikado," respectively), but while we can make out Ko-Ko's perfectly, the Mikado's remains a mystery. The choral pieces appear to have been arranged with beauty taking precedence over clarity, and a first-timer would be well-advised to read the synopsis carefully before the curtain, because it's very difficult to make out the plot details from the songs. One notable exception is the lovely and moving madrigal "Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day" at the top of the second act. Amid the goofiness, Katisha's "Alive and Alone" is also a touching moment -- "My soul is still my body's prisoner," she says, manifesting the fascination Gilbert had with women of a certain age and the physical effects of time on women's bodies. Christopher Walkey, as Ko-Ko, is by far the best of many good things about this production. Ko-Ko and Pish-Tush are the only two roles that aren't double-cast, so all performances are graced with Walkey's lively, sweet, and nimble Ko-Ko. From the moment he stumbles onstage, burdened by an executioner's ax far too heavy for him, Ko-Ko gains the audience's sympathy. He may be the Lord High Executioner, judge, and jury in one, but he's really just a pussycat who wants to marry a pretty girl and not have to kill anybody. Although really, Yum-Yum's such a shallow, vain little thing ("Sometimes I sit and wonder, in my artless Japanese way, why it is that I am so much more attractive than anybody else in the whole world," she muses in the second act), I started hoping that Ko-Ko could find someone more interesting, and leave Yum-Yum to the equally attractive-yet-clueless Nanki-Poo.
Visually and musically, the Lamplighters present an arresting show. Conductor Baker Peeples is sure-handed and his orchestra first-rate. The villagers' pastel costumes contrast nicely with the bold, saturated colors of the imperial court's flashy outfits (especially Katisha's). The set, while simple, has a few opulent-looking pieces (mostly gates) that are used effectively. The stage business -- especially the movement of parasols and fans -- is precisely choreographed and appealing. Quibbles with audibility aside, it's a fun evening for enthusiasts and newcomers alike, and carries the G&S banner into another century stylishly.
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