An Italian Mikado
by Philip Campbell
Lamplighters Music Theatre, San Francisco's venerable Gilbert & Sullivan troupe, has been dragged into the 21st century with their latest production of the famous Savoyards' heretofore most successful operetta, The Mikado. On opening night last week at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek, the Company unveiled a new fashioning of the tuneful Victorian musical intended to address concerns regarding stereotypical treatment of Asians and Asian society in the libretto, while preserving the basic integrity of the work.
The New Mikado – una commedia musicale! represents a fresh take, directed by Ellen Brooks and conducted by Baker Peeples, that moves the action from "the traditional setting of a fictitious Japanese village to a re-imagined Renaissance Italy." American revivals of the comic opera in recent years have raised all sorts of controversy. Performances have provoked well-publicized protests and a cancellation by the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players. A lot of seemingly willful ignorance on both sides of the debate has invoked the much-abused charge of political correctness. A troubling aspect of artistic censorship often lies within the intentions of those calling for prohibition and the openness (or lack thereof) to negotiation by defendants.
Last April, a carefully worded open letter by Lamplighters Artistic Director Rick Williams and Resident Music Director Baker Peeples explained their response to community concerns. They sincerely tried to weigh the most extreme sides of the argument against the majority middle to find a solution that would preserve the historic work and show sensitivity to the "cultural and political climate of today's world." Some outraged opponents still call for a total ban, while others berate the Lamplighters for caving into dreaded political correctness.
I don't find PC a dirty word, and I fervently believe it has to be judiciously applied, especially when that other really dirty word "racism" appears. I also wouldn't want to see The Mikado consigned to the garbage dump of theatrical curiosities.
So how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? Editing with a double-edged sword has changed the setting, adjusted the dialogue and some of the lyrics and names, but it has also traded one set of stereotypes for another. The Mikado was never meant to skewer Japanese society or, in this case, Italian. The parodying is sometimes undeniably ignorant and offensive, but it was part of Victoria's England, and it was really meant to take comic potshots at the Brits themselves.
In the best of his writing, Gilbert was a universal satirizer bent on exposing human folly. His plots are sublimely silly and often bitingly sarcastic. Sullivan cushioned the words with an endless stream of gorgeous melodies. That is where The New Mikado succeeds best. Superbly prepared and refined, the Lamplighters Orchestra continues to beguile, especially when Baker Peeples is in the pit. The singers do well enough, but the instrumentalists surpass themselves.
Sets have been re-purposed and look a bit tatty, but the beautiful costumes by Miriam R. Lewis are up to usual standards, and the lighting design by Brittany Mellerson really makes them pop.
Roles are double-cast for the four-city run. Two of the most important parts were exceptionally well-played on opening night, by Ben Brady as Il Ducato (yes, the Mikado) and Samuel Rabinowitz as Coco. Brady's rich voice and expert timing made a fine impression. Rabinowitz, looking a little like Al Franken with a Harpo wig, owned the stage with his comic athletic energy and genuine sense of fun.
Anne Hubble tackled the stock G&S battle-axe part of Catiscia with mezzo-soprano gusto. She was stretched a bit vocally, but amusingly fierce in dialogue. Charles Martin as Pooba, the Lord High Everything Else, preened and strutted, and delighted the audience in a suitably over-the-top performance.
The juvenile leads featured Patrick Hagen, in his Lamplighters debut, as Niccolu (the Ducato's son disguised as a wandering minstrel) and Erin O'Meally as his love Amiam. Their fresh voices grew in strength throughout the evening. The Chorus of Schoolgirls, Nobles and Townspeople et al. sang and pranced gamely through director Brooks' and choreographer Nicole Helfer's sometimes fussy paces.
The big patter song "As Some Day It May Happen" ("I've got a little list") is traditionally tailored to current events and locality, and drew roars of laughter as Rabinowitz gleefully denounced everything from militant vegans to urban bicyclists and Brexit. That's the spirit we love in Gilbert & Sullivan, and if The New Mikado is still raw, at least the Lamplighters are trying to preserve the tradition and show an obvious sympathy with modern audiences.
The run continues in Mountain View (Aug. 13-14), San Francisco (Aug. 19-21), and Livermore (Aug. 27-28). Info: lamplighters.org.