THEATER REVIEW Lose Your Head At ‘The Mikado’

Gilbert and Sullivan Are Turning Japanese

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The gentlemen and schoolgirls of Titipu accompany Nanki-Poo (in black, right), a traveling minstrel, in song.
Michael T. Lin—The Tech

The Mikado

The MIT Gilbert and Sullivan Players

La Sala de Puerto Rico

Thursday and Friday, December 3–4 at 8 p.m., Saturday, December 5 at 2 p.m.

The Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ production of The Mikado opened last Friday, and it illustrates a few points. First, the Victorian England of Gilbert and Sullivan probably had a very bizarre perception of 19th century Japan, after seeing this show if not before, and second, G&SP seem to be at the top of their game when dressed in kimonos.

The show itself is prototypical of Gilbert and Sullivan productions, so your enjoyment of the show will probably be dependent on your tolerance for absurd logical progressions, similarly absurd characters, and sprightly music with only the occasional, passingly vague effort to sound Japanese. That having been said, the show doesn’t fail to entertain, with this particular production being one of my favorites of the G&SP shows I’ve seen so far.

The music didn’t strike me as being particularly memorable, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising considering that Gilbert and Sullivan predate the era of the more spectacular modern stage musical. The exception is “I am so proud,” near the end of Act I, which serves as the token tongue-twister number and is performed with gusto and no small amount of cross-singing between the characters in it. At any rate, the songs are pleasant enough to the ear, and the cast performs it well.

By their nature, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas demand a slightly different skillset from subsequent forms of musical theatre, and the leads in The Mikado seem to have mastered it. In particular, Barratt Park G as Nanki-Poo and Julie Lauren Stevens as Yum-Yum, the lead couple of the production, both perform admirably throughout the show, although Yum-Yum only truly gets to show off in Act II, so if you find yourself thinking about leaving at intermission, I would recommend sticking around.

Also, if you think those character names sounded ridiculous, consider Ko-Ko, played by Davie Rolnick ’12 (and who really does behave as strangely as his name suggests), as well as the giggle-inducing alternate title for the show, The Town of Titipu. The more juvenile audience members will probably snicker — I did.

Related to the vocal demands of more operatic music is less compelling choreography, although The Mikado is somewhat better in this regard than past G&S shows. If nothing else, the lack of a tentpole dance number is compensated for by the somewhat liberal use of Oriental folding fans, the prop du jour, as a means of distinguishing one character from another, in the unlikely circumstance that the brightly-colored kimonos aren’t sufficient.

Gilbert and Sullivan are obviously funny on their own, but the acting in this particular production works well in accentuating many of the best lines. Without spoiling the already-hard-to-swallow plot points, jokes about decapitation and death wishes abound, to say nothing of the paragon of government bureaucracy and integrity known as Pooh-Bah, played to a deadpan T by Dan Salomon. Plot details might be hard to comprehend through some of the operatic vocals, but I suppose it can’t really be helped given the style of the music, and at any rate, the gist isn’t hard to catch.

A final caveat: Although this should go without saying, those expecting a faithful or even favorable interpretation of the Japanese will be grossly disappointed. As easy as it is to interpret this as typical Victorian lack of cultural understanding, it seems reasonable to assume that Gilbert and Sullivan were using the Japanese as a stand-in for the English rather than being racist. The exception to the lack of authenticity is the set design, which goes beyond the stereotypical backdrop-and-risers in complexity and adds credibility to a necessarily silly and incredulous production, right down to the sakura trees.

If you’re a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan’s singular brand of humor already, this show should already be on your radar as one of the most popular in their body of work. Even if you’re not, the MIT G&SP production is a solid one that keeps laughs coming steadily and requires somewhat less suspension of disbelief than most Gilbert and Sullivan shows. If anything, the hardest thing to believe is that Katisha, played by Francesca Giannetti, is an crusty and unappealing old woman, a credit both to her and to the makeup artists. Performances are in La Sala de Puerto Rico, Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., and Saturday at 2 p.m.