The Singapore Mikado
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 1, 2006
I haven't seen a production of The Mikado since I was a kid, and I've never seen it live (just on TV); it feels ubiquitous, but in fact Pirates of Penzance is the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta that gets revived all the time, not this one. So Theater Ten Ten's current mounting is more than welcome, and to hear it sung unmiked and unamplified by a congenial and generally big-voiced ensemble makes the pleasure still greater.
What a score this is! I'd forgotten what a collection of hits is contained here: "A Wandering Mistrel, I," "I've Got a Little List," "Three Little Maids from School," "The Sun, Whose Rays Are All Ablaze," "He's Going to Marry Yum-Yum," "Here's a Howdy-Doo," "The Punishment Fits the Crime," "The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring," "Tit-willow"—my goodness (and please forgive the gushing) but as the standards kept floating out at me last night I was thinking how Gilbert and Sullivan had enough great numbers here for three or four shows. What we have here is truly an embarassment of riches.
But why would I want to quibble about that? The melodies by Sir Arthur Gilbert are unerringly delightful and the lyrics by W.S. Gilbert are amusing and clever but never arch.
Some context, now: The Mikado, as you probably know, is a comic opera ostensibly set in Japan, though it's a version of Japan very much like Victorian England. The complicated plot involves Ko-Ko, a ne'er-do-well who was sentenced to death for flirting but, in a moment of peace-loving whimsy, was reprieved and raised to the exalted title of Lord High Executioner, the assumption being that no one can ever be executed if he cannot first execute himself. Pooh-Bah, a nobleman with an ever-oustretched hand (for bribes, that is) is Lord High Everything Else. Ko-Ko is about to marry his lovely ward, Yum-Yum, but complications arise when Nanki-Poo, a second accordionist, turns up in town—for he is in love with Yum-Yum and she with him. Nanki-Poo turns out to be the son of the Mikado (the emperor of Japan), on the run from a proposed marriage to the imposingly terrible Katisha. That personage and the Mikado himself eventually put in appearances; Nanki-Poo is supposedly executed and it looks for awhile as though Ko-Ko might be, too; but all is put right by the end.
The libretto is hilarious; I confess to laughing loudly at least twice: once when David Tillistrand, as the unflappable Pooh-Bah, staged what amounted to a one-man cabinet meeting, hilariously (and literally) sidestepping the issues as he metaphorically added and subtracted hats from his swollen head; and another time when the great singing colossus Cristiane Young, as Katisha, announced that though her face may be unattractive, her right elbow "has a fascination that few can resist."
POOH-BAH: Allow me!
KATISHA: It is on view Tuesdays and Fridays, on presentation of a visiting card. As for my circulation, it is the largest in the world.
Now you've noticed that the title of this production is The Singapore Mikado, so I need to now explain what that's all about. Director David Fuller (who originally conceived this production with Charles Berigan) has placed this Mikado in Singapore, "the Gibraltar of the East," on December 10, 1941. That's just three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and also the date when the Japanese—the very nation being poked fun at in The Mikado—continued their assault on the West by sinking two British battleships stationed here at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. (Fuller provides a truly fascinating program note explaining the historical background of his concept, well worth reading when you see the show.)
So the rollicking time that everybody at the party is supposed to be having (the conceit is that this Mikado is being staged by Sir Evelyn Estebrooke, a head honcho of the British forces here in Singapore, as the entertainment at his annual Christmas soiree) is undercut by what's happening out there in the real world. The effect is alternately jarring (magnified whenever Estebrooke's Malay valet, Malphal, performs one of his myriad production tasks of moving scenery, etc.) and stirring (a sense of the old-fashioned "stiff upper lip").
Most of the time, though, the innate charms of the operetta prevail, and as I've said they are many. The score is very nicely sung; some standouts in addition to the aforementioned Young include Martin Fox as Nanki-Poo, Emily Grundstad as Yum-Yum (offering a very nice rendition of "The Sun, Whose Rays Are All Ablaze"), and Bianca Carragher as Pitti-Sing. The dancing, when it happens, is comely as well, choreographed sharply by Judith Jarosz. The production design features Japanese-y robes that don't quite fill the bill (costumes are by Viviane Galloway), but the omnipresent fans are gorgeous and invaluable.