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The Mikado Reimagined (NYGASP)

New politically correct version of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta set in a Victorian Japan is gloriously sung and played.

David Macaluso as Ko-Ko with his little list in a scene from New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ new production of “The Mikado” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

David Macaluso as Ko-Ko with his little list in a scene from New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ new production of “The Mikado” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

A year ago when the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players were planning their new production of The Mikado, questions were raised as whether it would be racist or not. As a result, NYGASP hired a team of 12 Asian American artists to help come up with a solution. The Mikado Reimagined was unveiled New Year’s weekend 2016 and is unlikely to satisfy the politically correct or G&S purists. This is unfortunate as the new production at The Kaye Playhouse conducted by Aaron Gandy was gloriously sung by its cast and gloriously played by the orchestra.

The solution includes a new prologue by director/choreographer David Auxier which attempts to contextualize the creation of the 1885 operetta. Composer Arthur Sullivan and librettist W.S. Gilbert meet in the office of their producer, Richard D’Oyly Carte. After talk of their current production of Princess Ida, the discussion turns to their next project. Their intrepid producer unveils a trunk of Japanese items as an anticipated Japanese exhibition in Knightsbridge, London, is on everyone’s lips.

In the course of their discussion such phrases as “Oh, Pish!,” “Yum-Yummy,” and “nanki-poo” (baby talk for Handkerchief) creep into Sullivan’s repartee, words which become character names in the new opera. An empty notebook is found in the trunk, just suitable for a playwright to begin work. When a Japanese sword falls, it hits Sullivan on the head, and he dreams the show that becomes The Mikado set in a high Victorian version of Japan. All three men as well as the singers who interrupted them have roles in Gilbert’s dream in which he plays Pish-Tush, a Noble Lord.

Chris White as  the Emperor of Japan in a scene from New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ new production of “The Mikado” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Chris White as  the Emperor of Japan in a scene from New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ new production of “The Mikado” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

While The Mikado has had authorized changes as early as 1907 and again in 1947 making it more politically correct, since the 1990’s it has been criticized as being demeaning to Asian Americans and the Japanese in particular. Ironically, Sullivan fielded this question back at the time of its creation and is reputed to have stated that it was a satire on the flaws in British institutions (breach of promise law suit, English sexual prudishness, etc.) and never meant to mock Japan which he did not know. Aside from the extraneous prologue which adds running time to the evening and the excision of politically incorrect make-up designs, the other new NYGASP concept is the costume design by Quinto Ott.

In keeping with Sullivan having been hit over the head, the cast is clothed in a motley collection: a combination of late Victorian and Japanese styles. Some are in all Japanese, some in all Victorian, most are in a combination of the two. Even the Victorian costumes have baroque additions to make them look exotic. The women all wear Victorian gowns with bustles open in the back just as though they had not finished dressing. The concept while colorful is quite a mess with every possible variation on stage at the same time.

All the famous original musical numbers are still there (“A Wandering Minstrel I,” “Three Little Maids from School Are We,” “I Have a Little List,” “Here a how-de-do!,” “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime,” “The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring,” “Titwillow,” etc.) with a bit of tweaking, much of it current for many decades. The story takes place in the mythical Japanese town of Titipu. Ko-Ko, the recently appointed Lord High Executioner who has no job experience, has a problem. The Emperor of Japan is coming for a visit and will expect to hear that there has been an execution, but none have taken place. In addition, Ko-Ko has several other problems: he is engaged to marry Yum-Yum, his young ward, just out of school, but she has fallen in love with Nanki-Poo, a wandering minstrel.

Sarah Caldwell Smith, Amy Maude Helfer and Alexandra Haines as the “Three Little Maids from School” in a scene from New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ new production of “The Mikado” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Sarah Caldwell Smith, Amy Maude Helfer and Alexandra Haines as the “Three Little Maids from School” in a scene from New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ new production of “The Mikado” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Unknown to all in Titipu, Nanki-Poo is actually the son and heir of the Emperor, fleeing an arranged marriage to Katisha, a much older harridan in his father’s court. Things get more complicated and then all is sorted out to the happiness of all – except poor Ko-Ko. Well known for its updated and contemporary interpolations, this NYGASP production had relatively few aside from a reference to the new Second Avenue subway and President-Elect Donald Trump.

The NYGASP cast has much more diversity than in previous productions with some Asian American and African American singers in the mix, though most appeared in the ensemble. The production has been double cast in all the primary roles alternating for the ten performances. At the performance under review, in the central role of Ko-Ko (as well as appearing in the Prologue as Arthur Sullivan), David Macaluso demonstrated impeccable timing, much in the manner of Groucho Marx who had played the role in a 1960 television version. Tenor Daniel Greenwood made a dashing Nanki-Poo. Contralto Cáitlín Burke was curiously subdued as the virago Katisha even in her musical numbers. Tall handsome bass-baritone Chris White who towered over the other singers made a droll Mikado.

Sarah Caldwell Smith put her high soprano to good use as Yum-Yum. However, Amy Maude Helfer as her sister Pitti-Sing stole all of her scenes with her wry delivery, as did Matthew Wages as the imperious and condescending Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else. He was also amusing as a peacemaker in the Prologue as impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte. Joshua Miller in the dual role of W.S. Gilbert and Pish-Tush seemed to have little to do in the actual opera other than stand around and take notes as a reporter covering an event.

Auxier’s sharp direction (assisted by Kelvin Moon Loh) was in full evidence while his choreography was strangely conventional, more Broadway than Japanese. Musical director and conductor Gandy obtained a splendid account of the score from his large orchestra. The singers’ diction was excellent except however during the choral numbers in which the words did not come through over the orchestra’s playing. The new scenery by Anshuman Bhatia which brings a Hiroshige print to life is quite lovely and atmospheric. However, it was often unaccountably lit in purple by designer Benjamin Weill during the musical numbers. The less said about the mishmash of costumes by Ott the better.

Cáitlín Burke as Katisha and company in the first act finale of New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ new production of “The Mikado” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Angela Christine Smith as Katisha and company in the first act finale of New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ new production of “The Mikado” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

NYGASP’s reimagined Mikado is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the production is gloriously sung and amusingly played. On the other, the new lengthy prologue and motley costumes both seem big mistakes. The mix of English and Japanese styles may be politically correct but the stage picture looks like a wardrobe trunk has been raided and no one received the costumes they were supposed to wear. There must be a better solution than this.

The Mikado Reimagined (December 28 -31, 2016 and January 5 – 8, 2017)

New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players

The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, East 68th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-772-4448 or visit http://www.nygasp.org

unning time: three hours and five minutes with one intermission

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (382 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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