Gilbert and Sullivan fans have a lot to be grateful for this month with the Blu-ray releases of The Mikado and Topsy-Turvy. The former immortalizes one of the pair’s most well-known achievements on celluloid and the latter features Mike Leigh opening up the world behind the creation of the opera. Released separately by Criterion, the films are fantastic companion pieces to each other and offer two perspectives on a partnership that left an indelible mark on musical theater.
1939’s The Mikado features director Victor Schertzinger bringing Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1885 comic opera to the screen, and although the film has been (somewhat) rightfully derided for its stage-bound aesthetic and truncated state, it would take a real cynic to dismiss it outright. The film stars a number of stage performers from the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and gleefully conveys the inspired silliness that makes Gilbert and Sullivan so much fun.
In one of the more controversial casting choices, American singer Kenny Baker stars as Nanki-Poo, son of Japanese ruler the Mikado (John Barclay), who flees and disguises himself after his father decrees he must marry the hideous Katisha (Constance Willis). Nanki-Poo is really in love with Yum-Yum (Jean Colin), but she is betrothed to Ko-Ko (Martyn Green), a bumbling public servant who finds himself given the position of Lord High Executioner.
Nanki-Poo pines after Yum-Yum with little hope of ever being with her, but when Ko-Ko receives a command to carry out an execution lest he be killed himself, he seeks to come to an agreement with Nanki-Poo that will give them both some measure of satisfaction.
The Mikado’s confluence of forbidden love, hidden identities and comically inept characters clearly shows the foundation that Gilbert and Sullivan laid for the plot machinations in legions of musical theater comedies to come. This is a fundamentally silly show, from its fictional ancient setting where flirting is the greatest offense to the benignly ridiculous renderings of Japanese attire. It’s also unerringly delightful, from the verbal patter between characters to the musical numbers, among them the instantly recognizable “Three Little Maids from School Are We” and “A Wand’ring Minstrel I.”