Trouble in Titipu

directed by Lindsay Davis

GILBERT AND SULLIVAN are among the most important of the minor pleasures of life, and Harvard would be a spiritually poorer place without its G & S society. Like any company devoted to performing a canon of works over and over, some years it must forego the juiciest operas and stick with the second-rate. But The Mikado (even if it's not quite as good as Patience) is the traditional favorite, the old chestnut by which the rest are judged. Its production is like Hamlet at Stratford or Casablanca at the Brattle Square. This Mikado, though, is hardly a high point among recent G & S productions at Harvard--it's not painfully disappointing, but it lacks exuberance and never extracts the full humor of Gilbert's funniest script or the full possibilities of Sullivan's most ingratiating score.

It is a production without flourishes, largely without heights and depths. After a bumpy overture, the chorus of "gentlemen of Japan" appears on stage in hideous white makeup and nondescript floppy bathrobes. The one conceivable excuse for the makeup--trying to make everyone look alike in a "seen one Jap you've seen 'em all" kind of way--is hardly achieved and hardly worth trying for. But this is the kind of mistake that you can get used to in the course of a production. Worse is a lack of imagination in characterization, delivery, choreography, lighting and musical arrangement.

The small orchestra plays with evident relish and generally does a good job. It overpowers the singers at times, but this seems to be the fault of the cast--even when they were given ample room by the orchestra, many singers fail to take advantage of it. Katisha (Marcia Ragonetti) had one of the best voices in the company, but she was miscast if she wasn't willing to put aside some of the beauty of her voice and simply bellow out her lines. And Yum-Yum (Deborah Shaw) was clearly inadequate in places--she sang sweetly, but without sufficient strength. Most of the others were better suited to their roles--Ko-Ko (Dennis Crowley), Lord High Executioner, was the most enjoyable portrayal of the production; Crowley wrung the most drama out of his role, remembering that Gilbert's words are as important as Sullivan's music and usually funnier. Crowley has the best Gilbert and Sullivan voice in the cast, a compound of condescension and donnish befuddlement, and it's unfortunate he didn't have the chance to perform a patter song. His "I've Got a Little List"--perhaps the number that has proved most useful to later parodists--sounds fresh and crisp; his "Taken From a County Jail," though, didn't come up to this high standard and lacked the clarity of diction essential to understanding Gilbert's lyrics.

Nanki-Poo (Tom Fuller) was also excellent. The straight male Dudley Doright lead in G & S operas are usually second in insipidity only to the straight female lead, and Fuller turned in one of the most successful recent performance in such a difficult, unrewarding role. Pooh-Bah (Scott Moe) was well performed, but not as satisfactory; like Peter Rogers's unfortunate Mikado and Crowley's otherwise fine Ko-Ko, his portrayal suffered from too much of an unctiousness that makes Gilbert and Sullivan seem like effete tomfoolery, overbred "veddy British" knockabout farce, instead of satirical light opera of the highest order.

THE PRODUCTION'S stage business and blocking is simple and straightforward and attempts at variety are not always welcome changes from the conventional. The entrance of the "Three little maids from school" is almost embarrassing in its overplayed flightiness; Ko-Ko's entry onstage reading a Japanese newspaper, on the other hand, comes off well enough. The use of twirling Japanese umbrellas for "Behold the Lord High Executioner" was only a pale reminder of the brilliant, all-stops-out use of big plastic umbrellas two years ago in Patience. The best new approach in the production, though, works extraordinarily well--it consists of an easel with a series of mathematical equations whimsically demonstrating the point of "See How the Fates Their Gifts Allot," perhaps the show's wittiest number. This was not the only bit of business that came off--the tableau effects during "The criminal cried" were excellent, and the ruffling and unruffling of large gold foil fans during "A More Humane Mikado" nearly stopped the show. And Katisha's new image as an angular, sympathetic giantess instead of a short, fat grouch worked well as one of the few departures from convention among the characterizations.

That The Mikado sags in the middle, through the string of serious, lamenting numbers just before the finales begin, is only partly the fault of the cast, but they do very little to improve things. A production of The Mikado stands or falls by how it handles the run of brilliant songs that carry the denouement from "Here's a How-De-Do" onward. Musical director Jon Sheffer doesn't take full advantage of the grand orchestral flourishes that are meant to be milked for all they're worth. The chorus never lets go and brings the house down. I got the impression the actors were taking the play at too fast a pace; Sheffer ordered no encores for "Here's a How-De-Do" (one of the most frequently encored numbers in the whole G & S canon) and none for "There Is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast," the only number that got an enthusiastic audience response of sustained applause and real excitement. He seemed in an inexplicable hurry to get on with the perfunctory "For He's Gone and Married Yum-Yum," and finish the show.

BUT THIS WAS clearly a show people expected to have fun at; the night I went, half the house was composed of members of the Victorian Society of Boston, some of whom were decked out in capes and purple silk cravats and false moustaches. The orchestra played "God Save the King" before the curtain went up--an affectation, but a high-spirited one. Even an uncolorful production can't frustrate an audience of Gilbert and Sullivan-ophiles intent on enjoying themselves. But such a production does limit the real fun to those who can compensate for its limitation with their memories of other productions, their knowledge of the libretto and their sympathy for the material.

It's too bad this production won't gain Gilbert and Sullivan any new admirers, particularly since The Mikado's theme (almost alone among Gilbert's plots) deals with more than minor, absurd social issues of the Victorian age, such as cleaning up salty language (Pinafore), Walter Pater-style aestheticism (Patience), and the House of Lords (Iolanthe). The Mikado, like some of Shakespearian and Johnsonian comedy, is about the impossibility and immorality of repressing the passions. It is the play in which Gilbert moves farthest away from the Victorian center he usually represented and comes closest to criticizing society as well as ridiculing social follies. And in an artistic sense, The Mikado is among the most selfaware and sophisticated of Gilbert and Sullivan's works. "The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring," for example, parodies the basic technique of opera and musical comedy--the action is ludicrously interrupted on very little pretext in order to make way for a song and dance number. One character lightly ends a sentence with the near-cliche: "It'll be as welcome as the flowers that bloom in the spring" and the company sets off into one of Sullivan's most ebullient melodies.

Gilbert and Sullivan aren't great enough to keep a Harvard Gilbert and Sullivan Society alive by themselves. The society has to continually exercise its imagination and keep its technical activities at the highest level of proficiency in order to keep G & S worth seeing again and again. This means taking Gilbert and Sullivan more seriously, as if they really were worth spending a lot of time and energy thinking about and producing. This production of The Mikado seems vaguely ashamed of itself; its hesitance is the product of defensiveness. Director Lindsay Davis contents himself with drabness in order to escape being accused of outrageousness or extravagance; the cast camps in order to escape being accused of taking itself too seriously. If only they relaxed and went overboard once in a while, everyone might have more fun--since fun, nowadays, is the only conceivable thing Gilbert and Sullivan are good for.

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