By Bob Shuman
The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) brought their production of The Mikado to the Kaye Playhouse over the holiday season (12/27-1/5)—perhaps especially topical now since it is about a prince who runs away from his family. The larger issue concerning the operetta is thornier than that, though, and has been since its premiere, in 1875, because of characterizations of the Japanese (a random list of role names is telling, and includes, Nanki-Poo, Pish Tush, Pooh-Bah, and Yum-Yum). The dramatist G. S. Gilbert, in defense, explained that “[The Mikado] was never a story about Japan but about the failings of the British government.” Even so, the work would be impossible to create today.
Attempting to minimize the offensive, the NYGASP spoke to the Asian-American community in 2015, upholding “The Mikado’s musical score, setting, characters, storytelling, and most of its universal Satire”—you can see the difference in multi-racial, if primarily non-Asian, casting and costumes by Quinto Ott that make use of shoulder ornamentation and flow—even gowns with their backs cut out–but which are only suggestive of the East. Director and choreographer David Auxier-Loyola, interprets the piece openly; how a Westerner would imagine Japan, in innocence and ignorance. He has also penned a prologue—apparently based on an almost-true story, which gives a rationale for a departure into the make-believe.
New material elsewhere injects mention of the disastrous film version of Cats, presidential hopefuls, and even Trump, but the creators ensure that the cultural misinterpretation is never as outrageous as in Mel Brooks’s The Producers, for example. NYGASP, which might be compared to a family of loving, ardent supporters, treats the work of Gilbert & Sullivan as treasure, not merely a gold mine. They may, in fact, be giving the team more accommodation than others would, as even contemporary writers, working sensitively, are typically not allowed to give voice beyond their own race and ethnicity, in the entertainment and publishing worlds.
Still, The Mikado is considered “the most popular piece of musical theatre of all time,” and today NYGASP is a needed outpost in the arts— important for students in understanding the range and history of theatre. The organization also allows audiences to get away from cold, hyper-tech Broadway and, beyond it, stage work that is created without access to a repertory group. For those who find Gilbert & Sullivan’s Victorian sensibilities too eccentric and psychologically weightless (The Mikado actually has a stronger storyline than The Pirates of Penzance, which relies on counting age by leap years), there is the music–which may, in part have influenced Frederick Loewe‘s score for My Fair Lady. Tuneful, pleasant, and rousing, the songs, choruses, recitative, trios, quartets, madrigals, and more, are all ably performed by the NYGASP orchestra, ensemble, and principals, who include David Wannen, John Charles McLaughlin, David Macaluso, Matthew Wages, David Auxier, Sarah Caldwell Smith, Amy Maude Helfer, and Rebecca L. Hargrove. Cáitlín Burke brings strong emotion to her role, as an elderly lady, in love with the prince—taking this Mikado from operetta to opera.
Conducted by: Albert Bergeret and Joseph Rubin.
Look for The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players, at the Kaye Playhouse, April 18-19 2020 with The Gondoliers.
Visit The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players.
Copyright (c) 2020 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Press: Sean Katz, Katz PR