It‘s easy to see why Gilbert and Sullivan‘s “The Mikado, or the Town of Titipu”, written over a century and a quarter ago, is one of the most performed works of theater throughout the world. The ninth of their fourteen operettas, their tale of the transparently ridiculous residents of the mythical Japanese town is of course not about Japan in any literal sense, but a satire of British politics, and by extension politicians everywhere. A large part of its enduring popularity is precisely that universality, making it appropriate as Lyric Stage Company’s first production of its current season in an election year. What may or may not be appropriate, depending on how much of a purist you are, is the choice to pepper the subtle yet sublimely incisive humor of Gilbert’s libretto with frequent contemporary political references.
Tinkering with some of the lyrics of the musical numbers is accepted tradition, begun by none other than Gilbert himself a decade or so after its first performance, most notably in the memorable “I’ve Got a Little List”. Just how successful this sort of thing becomes depends on how seamless the current inclusions are; in this version, some are, but too many are not. Gilbert was, after all, a master of meiosis, dramatic understatement, the revelation of just how clueless his characters are.
Thus lines about Wisconsin and venture capitalists, not to mention awkwardly inserted expressions like “wait for it”, fell embarrassingly flat with the opening night audience, while Gilbert’s lines, although familiar to many, were met with hearty laughter, such as the hero’s exclamation of “modified rapture” and the heroine’s declaration that she sits and wonders “in my artless Japanese way, why it is that I am so much more attractive than anybody else in the whole world”. Now there’s a skewering of virtually every politician, female and male, that surely needs no embellishment.
The success of any Gilbert and Sullivan production also depends on the extraordinary demands on the cast, requiring them to be practically perfect in pitch, diction and timing. Happily, in almost every case, this cast has that all nailed. Davron S. Monroe (the hero Nanki-Poo), Erica Spyres (the heroine Yum-Yum), Leigh Barrett (the battleship Katishah), Rishi Basu (the noble lord Pish-Tush), and Teresa Winner Blume and Stephanie Granade (Yum-Yum’s sisters Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo) are all terrific, especially when in chorus with the rest of the ensemble. At the performance seen, unfortunately Bob Jolly (Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner) seemed to be significantly indisposed, upsetting both his timing and pitch, and Timothy John Smith (The Mikado) seemed to be performing in another production altogether, certainly capable but much broader than the rest of the company. Last but surely not least on this little list is David Kravitz (Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else) who was particularly winning in both his singing and acting.
The overall direction by Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos was on a par with his many memorable musicals, such as last season’s triumphant closer, “Avenue Q”. The Scenic Design by Janie Howland was perhaps the most beautiful and sensible set seen in many a season hereabouts. Most of the costumes by Rafael Jaen were well done (though two of the women in the cast were somewhat upstaged by their wigs) and the lighting by Karen Perlow was very effective. Thankfully, Sullivan’s music survived intact under the Musical Direction of Jonathan Goldberg, even with the limitations of an orchestra of five.
This is a grand start to a very promising season, whatever one’s view of modernizing a classic. This reviewer has seen many productions of this work over the years that qualified as mortified rupture, so it’s a pleasure to see so much of “The Mikado” so wonderfully (you should excuse the expression) executed. As for that tinkering with Sullivan’s libretto, well, let the punishment fit the rhyme.