W.S. Gilbert said that when he conceived The Mikado he wished to illustrate “the failings of the British government.” With that in mind, the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players developed in 2016 a production of the light-opera classic with an eye on current events as well as modern sensitivities to racial stereotypes.
This holiday season NYGASP has brought the show back, with newly refreshed up-to-the-minute humor that’s nonetheless right in the spirit of the original. More important, and remarkable, various production elements and the company’s added framing story allow the production to circle around 19th-century Japanese stereotypes, yet without changing the story. The result is a smashing version that presents Gilbert’s brilliant lyrics and Arthur Sullivan’s fabulous music for our own calamitous age.
The wonderful costumes by Quinto Ott include some, like that worn by the Mikado himself, that look right out of Japanese court history. But the center of gravity of the production design in general is a mix of the Victorian and the could-be-anywhere. Director-choreographer David Auxier-Loyola sets the tale in the mind of Gilbert himself and plays the librettist in a prologue the director wrote depicting the dynamic duo in their milieu. Auxier-Loyola also plays the role of Pish-Tush, a secondary character but one he can position on stage often to slyly remind us of the framing conceit.
Adding to the free sense of time and place, updated lyrics to “As Someday It May Happen” (“I’ve got a little list”) and “A More Humane Mikado” (“Let the punishment fit the crime”) wink roughly at liberal NYC audiences.
Of course, clever ideation doesn’t make good theater. It’s a rich flowering of stage basics that makes this a great Mikado. The meat of the show is played straight – in other words, uproariously twisted. There’s fine singing and ingenue-ing from Sarah Caldwell-Smith as Yum-Yum and John Charles McLaughlin as Nanki-Poo. There’s exquisite clowning from Matthew Wages as Pooh-Bah, and aggressively charismatic contralto-ing from Cáitlin Burke as Katisha.
To top it all there’s the dead brilliant centrifugal force of David Macaluso as Ko-Ko, the reluctant Lord High Executioner. Macaluso, who was just as boisterous in NYGASP’s Pirates of Penzance last winter, gives us Ko-Ko as a fiery concoction of sneakiness and avarice, dweebitude and ego. When he’s on stage, comic business seems to explode both within him and into the surrounding company.
Now and then the orchestra can be too loud for certain individual voices to come through clearly, but for the most part the lyrics in the arias and recitatives are clear. During the company numbers, unless you’re a full-bore Gilbert and Sullivan aficionado and know the score by heart, you won’t catch all the amazing topsy-turviness of Gilbert’s words. (In fact, I wished I had read over the libretto at home before seeing this Mikado; I’ve always loved the show’s music but hadn’t seen a production in many years.)
Despite those minor caveats, the production is a lofty delight from start to finish. The Mikado is glorious, sure-fire fun. It runs through January 5 at the Kaye Playhouse in New York City.