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The Mikado

Kiss Me Katisha

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Music by Sir Arthur Sullivan

Libretto by W.S. Gilbert

Directed by Larry Carpenter

Choreographed by Daniel Pelzig

Music directed by Jim Coleman

Sets designed by James Leonard Joy

Costumes designed by Mariann Verheyen

With Eric van Hoven, Marie Danvers, Larry Paulsen, Marsha Bagwell, Kenneth Kantor, and the others

At Huntington Theatre through June 26

Call (617) 266-0800 for more information or see

There’s a wonderful story told in the Huntington theatre production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado: the story of all the disparate elements of a theatrical production coming together, interwoven with personalities and private idiosyncracies of the actors, and resulting in a living, breathing, organic experience that a good theatrical production always is. This is achieved via a deft trick: what we see on stage is not always the theatrical end-product, the finished production; no, the audience is granted a shifting perspective into the backstage doings, first tentative readings, more confident rehearsals, later dress rehearsals, snippets from the full performance interspersed with actors drinking tea between the runs, etc. Nothing is added to the Gilbert and Sullivan’s classical musical satire about love, laws, and death penalty in ancient Japan--no, every single word, spoken or sung, and every note is unchanged. But the perspective is different, putting the viewers not in the middle of (admittedly, highly stylized and satirized) Japan, but in the middle of very Victorian England, with a troupe of actors putting on The Mikado.

This is realized in a nearly wonderful manner, with each shift in perspective (from a rehearsal, to the actual performance, to backstage, back to the performance) being smooth and seamless, mostly achieved by a flowing shift of scenery, with the big ugly wooden shelves, full to the brim with theatrical odds and ends, being replaced with shimmering oriental tableau. This causes just one problem with the production: the way the story is told has really nothing in common whatsoever with the story of The Mikado. The possible explanation that this modus operandi was chosen to dilute the potential offensive and racist elements in the play is, of course, very much simplistic; it’s perfectly clear that The Mikado doesn’t have anything to do with real Japan, and is strictly a satire on English manners, laws, and customs. Making this connection explicit, rather than implicit, hardly feels necessary.

The Mikado, on certain level, is a love story between a wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo (Eric van Hoven) and a recently-graduated schoolgirl Yum-Yum (Marie Danvers), who is unfortunately engaged to a Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko (Larry Paulsen). The problems are amplified by some rather exotic criminal laws, a lovelorn old maiden Katisha (Marsha Bagwell) lusting after Nanki-Poo, and the remote but domineering power of the Emperor of Japan, the Mikado himself (Kenneth Kantor). The play, while being as funny and light and effervescent as they get, nonetheless deals with some rather heavy issues (laws versus morals, love and self-sacrifice in the face of death, etc.)--which is usually conspicuously missing from most stage productions of this musical.

Because of this disparity between the play and the way it was produced, I spent something like first twenty minutes in a state of supreme puzzlement and disorientation. Getting involved with the theatrical performance, for me, usually means suspending my inherent disbelief and entering completely the world presented on stage. In the case of good production, it is usually easy; in the case of bad ones, it’s impossible. The curious thing about the Huntington production of The Mikado is, while extremely well-thought and carefully realized work, there’s just one level of artificiality too many. It’s not just a story set in stylized Japan; it’s a story set in stylized Victorian England about people who are putting up a story set in stylized Japan, and while this makes a good deal of sense intellectually, it took a lot of effort for me to perceive any emotional sense in this production.

This, of course, happened, and sooner than I expected. Nanki-Poo, despite being ostensibly the lead of the play, is nearly always either relegated to the sidelines, or made so whiny and annoying that I find myself actively desiring for him to get beheaded. Not the case here; as acted by Eric van Hoven, Nanki-Poo is indeed charming and romantic, and his love story with Yum-Yum is empathically touching. The curious thing about this love story, is that the main dramatic moment between the two lovers is staged as a conversation between the Victorian actors backstage, rather then the characters onstage. This, I presume, can be used as an argument for the production switching between two worlds the way it does; but, in my opinion, the reasons why this scene works have to do solely with its dramatic clarity and intensity, and nothing with the way it’s located in the double environment of this production.

In any case, from this moment on, I got the emotional connection to the characters, and this connection only intensified as the show progressed. The dramatic entrance of Katisha in the Act I finale did not treat her as a villain or as a comic relief, but as a compelling dramatic figure. What really surprised and amazed me was the latter scene, when Ko-Ko is forced to woo Katisha. Most productions treat this scene as a comic humiliation for the play’s nominative bad guy; the best ones I’ve seen treat it as a heroic (if still comic) self-sacrifice. Here, it worked as a full-fledged romance, with the initially antagonistic characters gradually falling in love with each other, discovering the common things and empathizing with each other. At this moment, The Mikado acquired a profound emotional impact, which it kept until the end, joyous and enchanting.

I must admit, the fact that this scene was also realized as a backstage conversation did add a lot to the characters: seeing formidable Katisha as an aging and bitter diva was more touching that seeing her as a sadistic man-eating matron. On the other hand, I’m certain this was achievable without breaking out of the world of the play as written by Gilbert. There’s a lot of pleasures to be gained from the way this production works, from the beautiful costumes (all made of purely British fabrics), to the lovely scene changes, to the whole feeling of being a witness to the theatrical production coming together from all of its disparate elements. I’m still not sure, though, if I would have preferred something that would have made me feel like a part of the show, rather than a witness, or not.