Last night (Thursday, May 16) at the Spatz Theatre, the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Nova Scotia opened its 2013 season with a production of The Mikado, by many measures the most successful of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “light operas.” It had the longest run of any of their original Savoy Theatre productions (672 performances!) and revivals of it were frequently used to fill holes in the Theatre’s schedule when newer productions were delayed. During the 128 years between the operetta’s original staging in 1885 and the present day, it has rarely been out of production. It has also received that mark of pop cultural cachet—parody reference on The Simpsons. (Even Family Guy, that cultural touchstone of a still younger generation has indulged in the popular habit of updating the lyrics of “As Some Day It May Happen” to skewer modern satiric targets.)
The plot is simple, but, well, bizarre, with a mixture of light-heartedness and black humour that seems peculiar to G&S (I suspect that there’s few cultural products that can have both the adjectives “whimsical” and “pointedly satirical” applied to them.) A year before the action of the operetta, Nanki-Poo, son of the Mikado (Emperor) of Japan, flees court to avoid an arranged marriage to the much older Katisha. (The only offered alternative is death.) Posing as a traveling musician, in the village of Titipu he falls in love with Yum-Yum, only to discover that she is to be married to her guardian, Ko-Ko, a tailor. Nanki-Poo leaves Titipu in despair. As the operetta opens, Nanki-Poo has returned to Titipu, having heard that Ko-Ko is to be executed for violating the Mikado’s new law against flirting.
Upon arrival, he finds that Ko-Ko has been spared execution and has instead been appointed as Lord High Executioner (although it seems that since his induction, no one has actually been executed.) The twists and turns that follow from this setup have less to do with conventional plotting or psychological realism (or indeed, with real Japanese culture) and more to do with Gilbert’s satire of British institutions and self-serving modes of thought.
The Nova Scotia Society’s production is excellent, although it comes with a few unique twists. The most obvious is the almost exclusively female cast, meaning that all of the major male leads are played by women, (which I imagine entailed some considerable musical readjustment, transcribing bass and baritone parts into alto and soprano parts.) The performances, however, transcend any concerns this casting may have raised. Far less successful is the opening setting in a “college for young ladies at the turn of the 20th century.” When I read this in the program I looked forward to what I thought was going to be a whimsical play-within-a-play experiment, but the school only exists during the overture, and merely allows for some haphazard business, most of which is drowned out by the (deliberately?) too-loud overture.
As is always the case, there were a few opening-night glitches, most inconsequential and not worth mentioning (and, in any event, much fewer than I’ve seen with other companies.) What could have been a major stumbling block—the lack of an orchestra—turned out to be at worst, insignificant, and at best, enlivening. The single piano accompaniment helped highlight the performers’ singing voices, which always fulfilled their task, whether it be hitting those impossibly high notes, or navigating the rapid-fire staccato delivery that G&S songs frequently require.
While every performance is high-caliber, there is, however, a marked difference in level of technique between younger and more seasoned performers. A lot of W. S Gilbert’s satiric power comes from the close attention he pays to meter and sound. His songs and speeches are filled with wordplay, with tortuously clever rhymes and rapid-fire consonance. More even than Shakespeare’s, I think, Gilbert’s prose and lyrics benefit best not merely from clear enunciation, but also from a delivery that emphasizes and savors every syllable.
Thus while all of the performers—including Vanessa Breijer as Nanki-Poo, Jennifer Mealiea as Ko-Ko, and Lise Renault as Yum-Yum—are outstanding, I reserve special praise for the performances of Jacqui Good as Pooh-Bah, Ko-Ko’s right hand man and possessor of every title except Lord High Executioner, and Marthanne Williamson as the spurned Katisha. Both actors say their lines as they should be said, attacking each of Gilbert’s carefully placed syllables with verve and gusto. Pooh-Bah is often played with ironical pomposity, but Good adds a conniving note, imbuing the character with an energy often lacking in other portrayals. Similarly, portrayals of Katisha often paint her as dumpy or shrewish (and therefore less worthy than Yum-Yum of Nanki-Poo’s love) but Williamson’s Katisha, replete with shocking red kimono and sharp nails at the end of expressive bejeweled fingers, is a terrifying, grandiose figure who threatens to burst out of the play. (There is no doubt that there are reasons other than age and lack of beauty that make Nanki-Poo a reluctant groom.) Her miming of violence behind Ko-Ko’s back as he professes love, is both hilarious and energizing. (Watch Williamson when she’s not the main focus of action—these are the times that separate good actors from excellent ones.)
At the risk of alienating other audiences, I’ve always preferred Gilbert and Sullivan operettas to the more usual Rodgers and Hammerstein fare of high school musicals. (My discovery of G&S dates back to my teenage days, when CBC ran a late-night series of TV productions—to be honest, I had been looking for the nudity that the wee-hours relaxation of censorship frequently made possible.) I may be in the minority though. While I noticed some young people here and there at the theatre (and most encouragingly, onstage), I was struck by the sea of gray hair that I saw as I looked out over the audience. I’d like to think that this was an anomaly, that’s there’s enough interest in G&S to pass these productions, however modified, on to new generations. If you’re one of those who cannot abide musical theatre (and yes, there are an awful lot of you), then this argument is not for you. However, if you’re open to a little satire with your musical virtuosity, a little whimsy, a little wordplay that, even when it does not make you laugh, makes you gape at its audacity, go see The Mikado. As the woman sitting next to me said at the end of the production, “There’s not a bad song in it, is there?” ~ Review by Martin Wallace
The MikadoHalifax; May 16,17,18
Liverpool; May 25
Annapolis Royal; June 1