Sunday, July 17, 2016

Union Ave. Opera - Mikado

     For years the Mikado was perhaps one of the most beloved of Gilbert and Sullivan's light operas.  Ostensibly set in a fantasy Japan, it, like all of Gilbert's other work, took direct aim at Victorian British institutions.  The satire was at times harsh, but always clever and humorous. There had been however, some dis-ease with the Japanese setting from early on. But most were able to recognize that there is little to nothing truly Japanese about the setting or the jokes. And the strict way the copyright was managed insured that nothing excessive or incompatible with Gilbert's vision would be introduced.  That is - until the copyright expired.  And since then among the myriads of production one problem which has emerged has been the tasteless introduction of Asian/Japanese jokes and sight gags. Many of these were blatantly racist and an explosion finally occurred first in Seattle and then recently in New York City where protests erupted. I have read some pretty harsh commentary about "The Mikado" which frankly in my opinion is for the most part pretty uninformed, as it seems to not understand the work at all.  Still, it has (rightly I think) prompted G&S companies to rethink their approach to staging the work. At a minimum the concerns raised have caused directors to think through some of their sight gags and eliminate some of the more offensive ones.  At its most extreme other directors have attempted to rethink and rework the entire piece attempting to excise the Japanese setting completely.  The first and best know of these approaches is the well known Jonathan Miller staging for the English National Opera which reset the piece in a sea-side resort.
     This is roughly the same approach taken by the Union Ave Opera's production of the Mikado by its director Eric Gibson. And on the whole it worked pretty well.  I have to say right off the bat though that it was a great performance. The cast was simply terrific and the production was very entertaining. Zachery James as the Mikado managed to steal every scene he was in and so did Melissa Parks as Katisha - both of them were terrific. E. Scott Levin and Andy Papas were also outstanding as Poo-Bah and Ko-Ko. As this production attempted to remove Japan from the setting and the opera in every way certain lines were cut or altered: "In my artless Japanese way" became "artless millennial way" for example, and the joke about Japanese not carrying pocket handkerchiefs was cut. But other references were harder to excise. "Do you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan." or "A more humane Mikado never did in Japan exist." were retained. But the setting now is the "Japan Gentleman's Club" and the Mikado is now the "Mayor" (according to the program).
     Frankly I enjoyed the performance so much that I didn't really think much about it all during the performance, and it all kind of worked for me... sort of... well, until I started thinking about it on my long drive home and then, well, it kind of fell apart. I think It is all of the talk of execution which creates the problem. Since when does a Gentleman's club have a Lord High Executioner, even one as incompetent as Ko-Ko. And the Mikado is the Mayor of... well, what exactly?  The Gentleman's Club? Or the town in which the gentleman's club is located - is that Titipu, (that was never very clear for me either)? Ok, but since when does a mayor have the power to execute people by throwing them into a pot of boiling oil or molten lead? And it must be quite a gentleman's club where you might get executed for flirting! And well, not to be indelicate, but isn't flirting sort of one of the points of a Victorian Gentleman's Club? And this Gentleman's club has a nice group of young women (the women's chorus) which would make it impossible to avoid flirting. And... well.... (sigh) maybe I am thinking to hard about all of this and should just shrug my shoulders and say, who cares? I mean really, does it really matter if not all the pieces fit together?  After all the performance itself was terrific and it was a really fun production. I actually enjoyed this performance of the Mikado as much as any G&S performance I have been to in a long time, even if it did have the aftertaste of a bit of confusion for me. So I don't have an answer - this IS comic light opera.  All the jokes and satire were there and the performance was great.

     One additional issue which has sometimes caused folks to be uncomfortable with G&S is Gilbert's odd tendency to include an aging woman as a character whose aging becomes part of the joke.  These characters include Little Buttercup (Pinafore), Lady Jane (Patience), Dame Carruthers (Yeomen) and Katisha in this work. Even Sullivan was uncomfortable with this and pretty much demanded that Gilbert cease and desist, which he never really does though characters like Dame Hannah in Ruddigore and The Duchess of Plaza-Toro (Gondoliers) all have a bit more spunk and the aging jokes are (mercifully) gone, well, for the most part.  There is an interesting twist to all of this in Mikado as Katisha is not only older and consequently of failing beauty (this is still here) but Katisha also has a sadistic streak which makes her really kind of fun. "You won't hate me just because I am a little teensy-weensy bit bloodthirtsy will you?" she asks Ko-Ko. For this production Melissa Parks was perhaps the most memorable Katisha I have ever seen.  Not only did she have a huge powerful voice (Valküre power actually which made the act 1 finale absolutely thrilling!); and not only did she have perhaps the most incredible orange and black dress I have ever seen which made her stand completely apart from the rest of the cast, but she really played up the sadistic psychotic dimension and it was simply hilarious!  And not only that but she was matched in this by Zachery James as an equally sadistic and psychotic Mikado.  It was very effective and frankly it was really, really funny.
      I only have two other small (or not so small depending on your perspective) critiques - 1. Drake Dantzler has a lovely voice and he did a nice job as Nanki-Poo, but often he was so soft-spoken I could not hear his dialog. Yum-Yum too, but she was better. It is surprising for he is very experienced and really did a nice job otherwise.  I also had trouble understanding all of Ko-Ko's "Little List" song. There were no titles from this (though there were for every other song) and I suspect it might be because he was changing it for every performance.  Bravo, hats off - but between the laughing and the orchestra I just could not make it all out unfortunately. and 2. The conductor, Scott 
Schoonover did a nice job over all. His tempi were all great and the orchestra was well balanced with the stage. But I think he must have a thing for overtures as he cut Sullivan's wonderful Mikado overture down to almost nothing. He did the same thing to the Yeomen of the Guard overture last fall for Winter Opera (And to be fair, with OTSL did Pirates a few seasons ago they also cut the slow section out of that overture). All this overture cutting I find extremely disappointing. Those overtures are great pieces and need to be performed - especially the Mikado and Yeoman overtures, which were both written by Sullivan himself (unlike the Pirates overture which was written or I should say assembled by Sullivan's assistant Cellier.) I just don't understand the thinking behind this desire to cut the overtures.  Time will not be saved, in all cases the most time saved might have been maybe 5 minutes and, more importantly it completely destroys the form, and thus ruins the overture.  Why do it at all if it has to be cut so drastically - especially in the Mikado which begins with a relatively long orchestra introduction to the opening chorus.  Please - conductors - stop cutting G&S overtures!
     Finally, one thing I really liked a lot (aside from the great performance by the cast): the chorus - they were terrific. The men (and the women) especially had a nice full sound and not only that but they each worked on creating a unique character for themselves and it made the show really interesting. 
    I appreciate the director Eric Gibson's)attempt to find a new way to approach this work and it almost worked, and along the way it was a really great show. 

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