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Matthew Wages, Sarah Caldwell Smith, Stephen Quint , Cáitlín Burke and
by Deirdre Donovan
Well, chalk one up for the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players! The company has pulled off a Herculean feat by retooling The Mikado and turning it into a work that embraces all ethnic groups.
For those who missed the ballyhoo in the media last season about the NYGASP, here’s the long story short. The company sent out their annual promotional mailer last fall for their planned Mikado production with a Caucasian actor in yellowface with cartoonish facial expressions. It attracted a lot of outrage from the arts community, which immediately channeled into blogs and social media.
Rather than turn a deaf ear to the community’s response, however, NYGASP carefully listened to the objections and embarked on a year-long campaign to stage the classic in a manner that wouldn’t alienate Asians or any ethnic group. The company, in fact, invited Asian experts into their inner circle to discuss the changing sensibilities in arts and how to interpret The Mikado without losing the artistic integrity of the piece. No easy task, this. For many Gilbert and Sullivan aficionados, The Mikado is the Grail of the canon. It’s also worth noting that the duo wrote the comic satire in 1885 to poke fun at Victorian society, intentionally setting it in mythological Japan to provide safe geographic distance for their political-barbed words. Still, the pesky question arises 132 years later: How does one stage The Mikado without sparking racial controversy today?
Longtime NYGASP member and director David Auxier responded by taking the bull by the horns and writing a Prologue for The Mikado that frames the work. Loosely based on an apocryphal story about Gilbert, Auxier’s Prologue whisks us into the posh Office of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in 1884 with impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan exchanging shoptalk. As Gilbert and Sullivan argue about their Savoy production of Princess Ida and how Gilbert should shelf his overdone plot device of the “magic lozenge” for his next opera, Wisely, Carte redirects the artists’ attention by showing them a preview of an authentic Japanese exhibit at Knightsbridge. Summoning Sullivan to help him mount a Japanese sword over the mantelpiece, Gilbert gets in their way and the sword falls and accidentally strikes him on the head. Well, you can probably imagine the rest. Gilbert, dazed by the sword’s blow, is inspired with a “most wonderful idea” for his next operetta.
Yes, the Prologue is witty with its word play on the characters’ names in The Mikado (Nanki-Poo, Yum-Yum, and Pooh-Bah are phonetically insinuated into the dialogue). What’s more, it gives us a whimsical snapshot of the three historical personages who built the Gilbert and Sullivan legend.
But the real fun begins shortly after, as the music swells from the orchestra pit for the first musical number, “If You Want to Know Who We Are.” The whole audience at this point seemed to respond with a collective sigh of relief. No matter how they received the Prologue, they were eager to embrace the familiar music and plotline of The Mikado.
(LtoR) Stephen Quint, Matthew Wages &
Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg
You know the story: It’s a fable set in the imagined town of Titipu where the Mikado (Cole Grissom) rules, with his will being law. That presents difficulties to many, including his son (Jesse Piimpinella) who has been forced into an engagement with an ugly, older woman Katisha (Caitlin Burke). Fleeing her in the disguise of a wandering minstrel named Nanki-Poo, he seeks out his true love Yum-Yum (Quynh-My Luu), even though her guardian Ko-Ko (Adam B. Shapiro) intends to marry her. Since this is a Gilbert and Sullivan work, there’s even more complications ahead that befuddle the various characters: Ko-Ko has been condemned to die for flirting but is granted a reprieve when he’s then appointed the Lord High Executioner. When the Mikado later decrees that Ko-Ko will lose his post for not beheading anybody for a year, Ko-Ko cleverly strikes a deal with the suicidal Nanki-Poo that he can marry Yum-Yum if he agrees to be executed a month later, as substitute-victim for himself (Ko-Ko). Nanki-Poo agrees--but other absurd laws surface that threaten to derail his wedding plans. When the Mikado finally arrives on the scene in Act 2, followed by the jilted Katisha, things get even thornier. However, Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum, in the vein of all Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, do find a way to live happily-ever-after.
Visually, this Mikado is a sight-to-behold. We see an exquisite painting of a towering Japanese mountain along the stage’s back wall and traditional Asian-style architecture in a courtyard in the foreground. It is the best set to date that I have seen in a NYGASP production, with no corners cut when it comes to quality.
This production is more than eye-candy, however. Auxier has intentionally jettisoned many of the quaint visual clichés that are part and parcel of many Mikados. Gone are the kimonos, gone are the bows and shuffling feet across the boards, gone are the exaggerated slanted eyebrows and yellowface paint. Instead we see some real Asians—and other ethnic groups—represented on stage. Yes, this Mikado is color-blind, with a global cross-section of artists in the cast.
The acting is mostly good, with a few standouts. In the principal role of Nanki-Poo, Jesse Pimpinella straddles the different personality traits of his character, infusing the romantic, rebellious, and a dash of the pragmatic, into his heir apparent. Playing opposite him as Yum-Yum, Quynh-My Luu conveys the necessary mix of sweetness and realism for her bride-elect. True, Pimpinella and Luu pretty much steal the show in Act 1. But Cole Grissom, as the Mikado, and Cáitlín Burke, arrive with equal energy in Act 2. Grissom has the physical stature and presence to play the Emperor of Japan, and Katisha comes through as the tiger cat that her part requires. All the remaining ensemble members are competent, and hold their own on stage.
Beyond the acting, the production values are sound. Anshuman Bhatia’s handsome set, coupled with Benjamin Weill’s protean lighting captures the fairytale-like setting of The Mikado. Quinto Ott’s eclectic costumes are more fanciful than Asian, with the Mikado’s dragon-inspired outfit and headpiece being the exception. Auxier’s choreography is at its best in Act 2 when Ko-Ko and Katisha court each other—and do a mock tango. While other dance routines go smoothly, nothing has the snap, crackle, and pop of Ko-Ko and Katisha’s pas de deux.
But what’s The Mikado without its patter songs? Predictably, Ko-Ko’s signature tune “I’ve Got a Little List” was a highlight of Act 1 and the Mikado’s song “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime” topped the numbers in Act 2. Okay, the orchestra’s performance wasn’t as lively as in other NYGASP productions I’ve recently visited. But since the orchestra was ensconced in the pit in front of the stage, it was almost impossible to figure out what section of the orchestra was sagging.
Enough nitpicking. If one thing can be learned from this new production of The Mikado, it must be: Never say never. Confronted with the dilemma of putting The Mikado on the shelf or reworking it for today, the company made the brave decision of staging a more inclusive Mikado. Bravo!
the Kaye Playhouse, Hunter College, East 68th Street, Manhattan.
tickets, phone the Kaye Playhouse Box Office: (212) 772-4448 or visit
time: 2 hours; 50 minutes with one intermission.