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Theater Review: The Mikado -- What to do when flirting is punishable by death

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, tis the season for some opera folly. A couple of weeks ago, MIT Gilbert and Sullivan Players presented a tongue-in-cheek version of Ruddigore. This time, Harvard-Radcliffe G&S Players sink their collective teeth into what is arguably the British duo's best comic opera: The Mikado, a tale of love, jealousy, intrigue, and capital punishment, set in medieval Japan. At least, it's set there as scripted by Gilbert. This production updates the time period to the end of twentieth century, changing the location from "the town of Titipu" into "the lobby of Titipu, Inc., a software company." By doing so, as well as making several other utterly baffling decisions concerning the mood of the production, it undermines almost all the impact the show might have had, and leaves it precariously balanced on the verge of high camp.

The plot, as customary to W. S. Gilbert, is full of perfectly reasonable insanity. The Mikado of Japan (Erik Amblad) had ruled that one and only one crime shall be considered a capital offense, punishable by beheading: the dangerous crime of flirting. Since the citizens of the town of Titipu are not exactly thrilled by this law, they do the only sensible thing: take the first person to be convicted of flirting, a lowly tailor Ko-Ko (Paul Siemens), and appoint him to the position of Lord High Executioner, correctly assuming that he will not attempt to behead himself, and thus stall the enactment of the Mikado's law.

Ko-Ko immediately starts to enjoy his newly-acquired power, and prepares to marry his ward, beautiful Yum-Yum (Caline Yamakawa). On the very day of the wedding, a wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo (Jerry Shuman) arrives into town, and, having previously fallen in love with Yum-Yum himself, decides to stop pretending being a second trombone in the marching band, and tries to marry the beautiful girl.

The pleasures of watching this opera (by the way, the word opera is not quite accurate; calling it a musical is equally justified), as well as every other one by G & S, lie in listening to the catchy tunes, following the intricate plot, and enjoying Gilbert's marvelous dialogue. Sorry to report it, but this production succeeds in only one of those three cases.

What works, and does so magnificently, is the music. As opposed to the MIT G&S Players, the Harvard group uses a full-sized orchestra, which is very well rehearsed and sounds great. The same applies to the singers, all of whom, without a single exception, are top-notch and form perhaps the best ensemble I've ever heard in an amateur production. The music is performed and sung with gusto, and is truly a pleasure to listen to.

On the other hand, it is far less pleasurable to listen to the words. The Mikado is sung like an opera, which means that, with a few notable exceptions, it's very hard to understand the lyrics. This is fine if you've heard The Mikado before, but if you haven't, you might want to bring a full libretto with you. The difference between a regular opera and a Gilbert & Sullivan one is that almost every word is really funny , and it's a shame to miss them.

The delivery of the spoken dialogue is far from perfect as well, which makes the complicated plot hard to follow. The resulting void is filled by some less-than-inspired gags, of which a good deal fail to work. The whole idea of updating the show into a contemporary time period doesn't add much; some resulting jokes are quite funny, like the conservative business attire of male chorus, or Yum-Yum's anime-style bright blue hair (prompting the audience comments like "Look! It's Suzuki Arimi from Marmalade Boy!"). Most of them, though, are just distracting; Gilbert and Sullivan wrote songs which are good enough by themselves, and there's no need to have gags like extraneous characters talking on cellular phones during the love song, or the Mikado with a stogie and Texas accent, and so on. Such slight, inconsequential gags distract from the intrinsic pleasures of the opera, like the touching love story and the potentially disturbing subtext on the nature of capital punishment.

Still, even despite this approach, a few actors transcend it, and give highly accomplished performances. Many thanks to: Jason Mills (playing Pooh-Bah, "Lord High Everything Else"), who delivers both his singing and spoken lines with complete clarity, and also manages to be quite funny in the process; and, especially, Paul Siemens, who somehow makes Ko-Ko, who starts as a villain of the play, end up as a tragicomic hero.

Readers of my Ruddigore review might remember the carping about MIT G&SP's less-than-perfect achievement in the organization department. But take heart; you're much better than Harvard G&SP. Four attempts to order the tickets by phone resulted in being put on hold four times for 15 minutes each time (after which I hung up); the box office opened 22 minutes late; the service was slow and inefficient; it's impossible to see half of the action on the stage from the seats on far right and far left of the audience; and so on. It is entirely due to the passion of the actors and the musicians that this production is, on average, quite enjoyable; but I wouldn't recommend it to people who haven't had the pleasure of seeing (or, at least, hearing) The Mikado before.

Music by Arthur Sullivan

Libretto by W.S. Gilbert

Presented by Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert & Sullivan Players

Produced by John Cearley and Jennie Connery

Stage direction by Jose Zayas

Music direction by Bradford Chase

Set design by Daniel O. Scully

Costume design by Jessica Jackson

Choreography by Lorraine Chapman

With Erik Amblad, Jerry Shuman, Paul Siemens, Jason Mills, Jim Augustine, Caline Yamakawa, Jaclyn Huberman, Erica Simmons, Tuesday Rupp, and the others.

December 11-13. Call (617) 496-4747 for information.