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'Mikado' Through Anime Eyes

THE MIKADO Directed by Jose Zayas '96 Produced by John B. Cearley '99, Jennie E. Connery '99 Agassiz Theatre, through Dec. 13

They say that everything old is new again. If you believe that weathered saying, it might help to explain the shiny new face that director Jose Zayas and the Gilbert and Sullivan Players have put on their new production of The Mikado, one of the greatest comic hits of the G&S; repertoire: neon-haired schoolgirls straight out of Japanese animation flirt with sharp-dressed business executives juggling briefcases and cell phones. Of course, some also claim that the more things change, the more they stay the same. And that's probably the real reason that this clever, high-energy production is just so gosh-darned entertaining. The Mikado, as presented by this exuberant cast, is still funny after all these years.

It seems like an exercise in futility to try to summarize a Gilbert and Sullivan plot, but the bare bones may suffice. Our young hero, Nanki-Poo (Jerry B. Shuman '98), the son of the Mikado of all Japan, has fled his father's court in the face of his upcoming nuptials to Katisha (Tuesday Rupp), a ferocious elderly noblewoman. While disguised as a wandering minstrel, Nanki-Poo has met and fallen in love with the delicious Yum-Yum (Caline Yamakawa)--but their amours were frustrated by the fact that the tailor Ko-Ko (Paul D. Siemens '98), the guardian of Yum-Yum and her sisters, planned to marry the girl himself. As the play opens, Nanki-Poo has returned to Yum-Yum's town of Titipu after hearing that Ko-Ko has been sentenced to death for violating one of the Mikado's laws. Unfortunately, as the town officials genially explain to him, Ko-Ko isn't dead--on the contrary, he's been promoted to Lord High Executioner, the highest civilian position available. And he's set to marry Yum-Yum that very afternoon!

All this, of course, is only what we learn with-in the first five minutes; as the play progresses, the plot becomes progressively more convoluted until even the closest of observers may be hard put to figure out, by the time we reach the obligatory happy ending, exactly who has been doing what to whom. But all this hardly matters. The reason for The Mikado's enduring popularity is not the complexity of its plot; it's the play's fast-paced, brilliant comedic development, endearingly ridiculous characters, unremittingly sparkling dialogue and clever patter songs, which include some of the best-known ditties in the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire.

With its ridiculously large cast of characters, this production might easily have been allowed to ride on the abilities of a few, letting mediocrity slide by around the edges. Fortunately, that isn't an issue here; each of the central players demonstrate a startlingly high level of energy. As the young romantic protagonists Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo, Yamakawa and Shuman are thoroughly engaging, projecting the strange blend of world-wisdom and innocence that make Gilbert and Sullivan's heroes so appealing--by the time he's finished his introductory song, "A Wandering Minstrel I," Shuman has won us over. Siemens's Ko-Ko is thoroughly annoying and amusing; more effective as a comedian than a singer. He's at his best when he seems to let himself go--as, for instance, when he cuts into a gleeful dance of selfish celebration during "Here's a Howdy-Do." And Erik E. Amblad '98, when he enters in Act II, is unstintingly and unnervingly unflappable as the cheerful, well-intentioned and despotic Mikado of Japan.

What's more, in this opera all the players can actually sing. The majority of the cast deliver their "patter songs"--the quick-paced, witty recitatives that are the trademark of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta--with careful articulation of the words. This allows viewers who aren't familiar with the play to follow the plot and understand the jokes. Yamakawa and Rupp are more conventionally operatic singers. Yamakawa's solos are lovely, and the music occasionally surprises with its beauty, as in the grief-colored "merry madrigal" near the beginning of Act II.

Against such a solid field of performances, though, the show's standouts come from several of the purely comedic roles. Jason R. Mills '99 delivers the show's most delightful comic performance as Pooh-Bah, the state advisor who has taken upon himself all of Titipu's offices except that of executioner. Managing to make one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most enduring and well-known characters unusually likable, Mills retains the character's indispensable stuffiness: "I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmic primordial atomic globule," Pooh-Bah sniffs genially, as he explains his haughtiness to Nanki-Poo and the audience. "Consequently, my family pride is something inconceivable."

Jim C. Augustine '01, too, goes beyond the call of duty as Pish-Tush, a secondary member of the local nobility, brightening the stage with manic clowning and energetically comic embellishments of every conceivable line and mannerism. And Jaclyn A. Huberman '01 busts out in the role of Yum-Yum's sister Pitti-Sing, delivering a hilariously physical performance as the tough-minded and aggressively sexy schoolgirl.

One of the show's finest performances, though, is arguably not comic at all: Katisha, the ferocious would-be bride of Nanki-Poo, is played with both delicious villainy and a surprisingly subtle range of emotions by Tuesday Rupp. Bloodthirsty and terrified of her own encroaching old age, Katisha first appears in a cloud of smoke and an attitude that brings to mind Cruella de Ville. But, playing Gilbert and Sullivan's somewhat enigmatic character to the hilt, Rupp injects a disturbing and note of tragedy into the entire latter half of the play; in the complex weave of The Mikado, this cast of darkness works surprisingly well, lending the play an unusual depth and richness of texture.

The aesthetic conception of this production is intriguing. The "town" of Titipu has been transformed into "Titipu, Inc."--a software mega-corporation--and the noblemen of the town become identically-suited business executives who try to juggle their brief-cases, beepers and cellular phones to amusing effect. The "schoolgirl" chorus which accompanies our recently-graduated heroines has been transformed, through a stroke of sheer genius, into a hyper-modernized version of the Japanese schoolgirl: the archetype found ubiquitously in the cartoons (anime) which permeate Japanese popular culture. Decked out in characteristic anime schoolgirl uniforms--white blouses, hot pink neckties, suggestively tiny pleated skirts and hair in brilliant colors found nowhere in nature (Yamakawa's bright-blue bob must be seen to be believed)--the "little maids" combine in equal parts dizzy flirtatiousness, wide-eyed innocence and a hyper-sexualized tendency to vamp. The comedic effect, when contrasted with the stiffly suited business executives of the male chorus, is dazzling, and the introduction of the girls' chorus to the audience--the songs and dance surrounding "Three Little Maids From School Are We" and "Youth Must Have Its Fling" are uproarious--make clear the fact that serious self-restraint is no match for the power of girlish glee.

All this "updating" cleverly defuses the touchiest issue inherent in The Mikado: Gilbert and Sullivan's mythicized Japan is based in large part on condescending and underinformed Victorian colonialist views of the Far East--and, while nobody really wants to point the finger of accusation at the most beloved of English musical comedians, the fact is that the authors' presentation of other nations and peoples were often less than politically correct. (After all, some of the original lyrics to "I've Got a Little List" would make modern audiences' ears burn). Contemporary productions of the play often transfer the setting to England or to America; Zayas's interpretation retains a modern-day version of Western perceptions of Japan, while steering clear of the treacherous waters of nineteenth-century Orientalism.

The Agassiz production is strongly bolstered by the work that has gone on behind the scenes; set designer Daniel O. Scully '99 has worked wonders in creating a thoroughly convincing corporate lobby on-stage--tiled walls, frosted windows, revolving door and all--whose startling multi-utility reveals itself in the Mikado's impressive entrance. The orchestra, under music director Bradford Chase and concertmaster Christina J. Hodge '98, is in good alignment with the stage performance, and handles the swift, tripping rhythms of the music with effortless precision. And for the sheer amount of continual clowning and motion on stage, choreographer Lorraine Chapman surely deserves plaudits as much as does stage director Zayas; the density of dancing, movement and inspired stage business during some of the ensemble numbers makes it difficult to believe that so many people can fit onto the stage.

The quality and enthusiasm of the players and the staff add up, in the end, to one thoroughly satisfying show. Theater-goers should in fairness be warned that this uncut version of The Mikado runs close to three hours, longer than some people are willing to sit still. But those who don't make the effort will regret it; and those who do will find that, with rare exceptions, every moment of the show is worth it. In the hands of these skillful performers, The Mikado comes up as funny as it was a century ago, and looking rosier than ever