BWW Review: THE MIKADO Brings a Hundred-Year-Old Operetta to Life at The Kaye Playhouse At Hunter College
The Mikado has an enduring place in popular culture. Over 130 years old, the musical has been oft-referenced in shows like Frasier and the Simpsons, and is the origin of the term "Grand Pooh-Ba," which has entered the English lexicon (you may remember it from the Flintstones). Even if you've never heard of the English composer-lyricist team Gilbert and Sullivan, chances are very good that you're familiar with at least some part of their work, especially if you're a musical fan. They were hugely influential on American musical theater, earning references in shows like Thoroughly Modern Millie and Hamilton.
These days, it's becoming rare to see fully-staged professional productions of Gilbert and Sullivan's work. The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players (NYGASP) is a non-profit devoted to "giving vitality to the living legacy of Gilbert & Sullivan."
The Mikado is especially in danger of not being performed, since it's troubled by a racist past. Set in a mythical Japan that's meant to satirize Victorian England, the operetta has been sometimes performed in yellow face, and contains language and naming choices that seem to mock Japanese culture, like Peep Bo and Nanki-Poo.
Following a protest by NYU students and the Asian-American theater community, NYGASP pulled a production a few years ago and brought back the Mikado Reimagined in December 2016. The production does away with much of the problematic language and costuming choices, and brought Asian-American actors and creators to the forefront, with costuming designs that blend Western and Japanese clothing styles instead of the kimonos of previous productions.
The new revised production has an original prologue by David Auxier that frames the musical as the imaginings of W.S. Gilbert, an English man swept up in the Japan craze of the late 1800s, who had never been to Japan. The revised version earned critical acclaim and praise from the original protestors.
Die-hard musical theater enthusiasts and fans of opera will love the Mikado, one of Gilbert and Sullivan's strongest scores. With quick-witted and clever lyrics that satirize society, you can easily see the influence G&S's works like The Mikado had on the works of American musical theater composers Rodgers and Hart, Stephen Sondheim, and Harnick and Bock. Some of the standout numbers from the score that you're probably already familiar with (or if not, you should be) include "Three Little Maids," "The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring (Tra La)" and "Tit-Willow."
Though the libretto is a little dated (a key element of the plot involves a woman so ugly that men have to fight over who doesn't have to marry her), for a hundred-year-old show, the sexism is surprisingly mild - it's nothing worse than, say, My Fair Lady or Oklahoma. There is an ugly woman trying to coerce an attractive young man to marry her, but there's also an ugly man trying to coerce an attractive young woman to marry him. At the end, they both get what they deserve.
NYGASP has added little touches to update the dated references. In Koko's "I've Got a Little List," in which he ticks off irritating people he'd like to execute, most of the lines have been modernized ("the people who on using hashtags do insist - they'd none of them be missed, #NoneOfThemBeMissed.)
The entire cast has fantastic voices, especially Caitlin Burke as Katisha and Sarah Caldwell Smith as Yum-Yum. The full orchestra does justice to Sullivan's wonderfully inventive score. The musical is infused with zany humor, making it no wonder that it was a favorite of classic comedians like Groucho Marx, who appeared in a filmed version in the 60s. (Here's a clip of him singing "There Is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast" with his daughter Melinda.)
The production has plenty of physical comedy and slapstick, making it a family friendly choice, and at $25 to $100 a ticket, it's a family outing that won't break the bank. (NYGASP offers an introduction to the musical at their Monday December 30th and Saturday January 4th matinees geared to help children enjoy the operetta).
The Mikado is playing now through January 5 at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College on 68th Street Between Park & Lexington Avenue. Tickets are available online.