The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players have been going for twenty-nine years; shame on me for taking so long to see one of their shows. It has been more than twenty-nine years since the last time I saw anything upstairs at the old City Center, on West 55th Street, a moorish palace built in 1924 by the Shriners, but I seem to have spent my childhood there, seeing Marcel Marceau a couple of times, a Japanese Kabuki troupe, Brigadoon, and my first City Opera performance, a Nozze di Figaro starring Judith Raskin. The City Opera currently has a magnificent Mikado in its repertoire - or did until recently - a feast of light and color, with no actual sets, but very cheeky costumes that, for the ladies, combine kimono tops with bustle bottoms. That's as far as the slapstick goes at City Opera. The Mikado, along with Iolanthe and Princess Ida, the two immediately preceding entries in the G&S canon, certainly belongs in the opera house, but, like Mozart's singspiels, it can approached as vaudeville, too, and that is pretty much the way NYGASP go at it. This is not to say that the singing wasn't, in some cases, quite fine, or that the orchestra wasn't up to par. But the stage miking at City Center seriously dented the production's musical virtues, and the antics and slippery accents of several of the leading players intensified the demotic effect. The pros and cons of NYGASP's Mikado were neatly summarized in a bit of business at the end, when the enraged Katisha, all eyeliner and long nails, actually dribbled a bouncing Ko-Ko.
The Mikado is somewhat daringly constructed, in that Katisha doesn't appear until the Act I finale, while the Mikado himself has to wait until well into the second act to reveal his magnificence to the citizens of Titipu. (The very idea of a traditional Japanese emperor's ever having revealed himself in such a way can make the Mikado's entrance inadvertently sidesplitting.) Yet all the real fun of The Mikado depends on these two. The Mikado, properly played - as he certainly was here, by Keith Jurosko - is a deeply enigmatic foreign-office type, personally decent but professionally bloodthirsty. And his Daughter-In-Law-Elect is the fat lady of opera, Turandot, Brünnhilde and Norma all rolled, very poly, into one. I don't think there's anything more delicious in all musical theatre than Katisha's prayer, the repeated line, 'may not a cheated maiden die?' But whereas Keith Jurosko, if Playbill is to be believed, has sung the role a staggering 650 times over twenty-four seasons, Melissa Parks is only in her second year with NYGASP, and she has, if not a lot, then more than a few things, to learn about G&S stagecraft. Blessed with a big fine voice, she could certainly learn from Mr Jurosko, who has whittled his Mikado's mannerisms down to the hilarious essentials. The things he does with that tiny little fan! Over time, I hope, Ms Parks will turn down the Turandot and turn up the casta diva.
Laurelyn Watson was a lovely Yum-Yum, singing her big number with all the self-assurance that it so explicitly requires, and everything else very prettily too. (She also took a flying octave-above-everybody-else note at the end of the first act.) Her way with the slangily shocking 'Don't it?' could have been a little more acute, and her 'artless Japanese way' was perhaps a touch too genuinely artless. But her performance was almost perfect. Michael Scott Harris was a bright young Nanki-Poo, more jeune premier than star of the show. Louis Dall'Ava gave away the secret, if a secret it was, of his very broadly conceived Pooh-Bah by adding 'makeup consultant to Harvey Fierstein' to the list of his offices. And I'm afraid that I found Stephen Quint's Ko-Ko simply irritating. A more than capable acrobat, Mr Quint displayed none of the vocal finesse, whether singing or speaking, that alone can keep Ko-Ko off his own little list. As one says of a fine Italian singer, that he has 'the garlic,' so Mr Quint lacks 'the Grossmith.' (Watch Topsy Turvey and you'll see what I mean.) Albert Bergeret, the guiding force of NYGASP, not only conceived the stage direction but led the orchestra in the pit, both with great brio.
Gilbert and Sullivan never saw eye-to-eye on anything, and their continued collaboration was a monument to improbability. That's probably why their best work can never be given definitive performances. Either you favor Gilbert - the witty puncturing of social convention - or Sullivan - the very sophisticated music. Having only seen one performance, I can't say that NYGASP always tilt toward Gilbert, but I do long to hear City Opera's Sullivan. (January 2003)
When it comes to Gilbert & Sullivan - well, when it comes to The Mikado, anyway - I suspect that I've become something of a minimalist. The material could hardly be more familiar, nor, left to itself, more beautiful. Yes - beautiful. What's often overlooked in G&S generally and in this, their most famous work, in particular, is the sheer beauty of the score. The wry, intensely verbal humor of Gilbert's lyrics too often distracts us from the Mendelssohnian gorgeousness of Sullivan's writing. As a comedy, The Mikado can take care of itself, as in fact it has done so for the parents of generations of high-school performers. It's the music that gets shortchanged.
That's why I don't miss the chance to see The Mikado whenever New York City Opera mounts it. I will mourn City Opera's last production, replaced by Jonathan Miller's in 2001, forever, because the music, for once, upstaged the book as completely as Katisha does her father-in-law-elect. But the new production doesn't shortchange the music, either. I expected to dislike it. Experience has taught me to dread the relocation of operas into periods unimagined by their creators, and Dr Miller's transposition of The Mikado from the fanciful town of Titipu in ageless Japan to something like Bournemouth in the 1920s sounded like a silly idea on the face of it. The Twenties, as I understand that decade, stand for the overthrow of everything dear to Gilbert & Sullivan, except possibly their cheekiness. But Mr Miller's Twenties, English rather than American, are the final blossoming of Victorian gentility. The uniform cream color of Stephanos Lazardis's set tries hard to conceal the shabbiness of a formerly grand seaside hotel, and the black-and-white (black-and-cream, actually) scheme suggests not so much Fred Astaire's sophistication as a failure of nerve. I wonder, looking back on it a few days later, if Dr Miller was inspired by Ken Russell's brilliantly seedy film of The Boy Friend.
The 'updating' - reinterpretations of opera almost invariably involve shifts to more recent decades - allows for some funny bits. Ko-Ko delivers his little list - itself hilariously updated, jettisoning the entirety of the original for a litany of current scandals - into a microphone, and Katisha delivers her arietta at the end of Act I as a lieder singer. The little maids from school sing just as prettily in prim uniforms and straw hats as they would in kimonos. A few other ideas, however - the Mikado's fat suit, the tap-dancing bellboys and chambermaids - would have been better if they hadn't been pushed so far. The Busby-Berkeley-inspired dance numbers, choreographed by Anthony van Laast with retouching by Stephen Speed, were so strenuous that they made the music seem to drag. I got the joke - insistently bright-faced hoofers dying to get through their numbers - but it didn't fit, because it countered the work's invitation to enjoy hamming things up. Jan Opalach's emperor lacked fierceness not because of but in spite of his padding, which promised the menace of a Sidney Greenstreet. If anything, his unimpressiveness underlined how very little the Mikado gets to do in the work named after him. Having Yum-Yum sing 'The sun, whose rays' from the lid of a piano, while her two chums mimed an accompaniment, seriously dented the loveliness of that number, which ought to be sung on an otherwise empty stage. The one miracle of imagination - which could easily be imported into a more traditional production of The Mikado - was to send out a troupe of headless gentlemen while Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush negotiated their famous tongue-twister, 'To sit in solemn silence.'
Whether or not Dr Miller's conception of Ko-Ko absolutely required updating, there's no question that Richard Suart, the one G&S pro in the cast, all but reinvented the role. Ko-Ko is usually a hapless cluck, overwhelmed by voluminous robes and hardly able to draw his sword. Mr Suart's Ko-Ko, in contrast, is a cynical con man, straight out of one Dr Miller's Beyond the Fringe routines, and even more palpably reminiscent of the game-show hosts that Michael Palin used to send up in Monty Python sketches. He found entirely new ways to hold the stage - ways, at any rate, new to The Mikado.
Keith Jameson was about the best Nanki-Poo I've ever seen; he gave the role the real Irish-tenor treatment it deserves. Anna Christy's Yum-Yum was a secure but slightly undernourished soubrette; this is a part that shines best when great vocal talent peeps out from the prettiness. Myrna Paris had a field day with Katisha but didn't quite infuse her performance with the pseudo-Wagnerian opulence that makes the 'Living I' such a lovable embodiment of the silliness of opera. Gregory Reinhart's Pooh-Bah was plush but understated - a Pooh-Bah too pre-Adamite to let loose in public. Kyle Pfortmiller's Pish-Tush, unaccountably outfitted as a sporting clergyman, sang very nicely, but Edith Dowd did not have the power, somehow, for Pitti-Sing, which was a pity indeed, because hers is a major part even if it doesn't offer a solo. Gerald Steichen conducted the too-small orchestra with an elegant attentiveness to the rich scoring. (November 2003)
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