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The Singapore Mikado: Here's a How-De-Do

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Though I would hope most Americans could instantly tell you the significance of the date December 7th, 1941, I would guess that far fewer would know that while Japanese planes were attacking Pearl Harbor, another part of their air force was mounting a separate surprise raid on British forces in Singapore.

Located on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, the island of Singapore served as a major port and military base for the British Empire. Protected by the thick Malayan jungle to the north, Singapore was considered impregnable and was nicknamed The Gibraltar of the Far East.

So what does this have to do with Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado?

When the audience arrives for Theater Ten Ten's fascinating and innovative presentation of that famed comic operetta, we're playing the part of guests at the home of British consul Sir Evelyn Estebrooke (David Arthur Bachrach) and his wife, Lady Judith (Beth Kikpatrick). Although there is no audience participation, the conceit is that it is December 10, 1941, and we are attending their annual holiday soiree, which always features an informal production of a favorite G & S. In an introductory welcome, we're told that Sir Evelyn himself will play the title role while an assortment of military friends and civilians (including a couple of Americans and an Australian) will round out the cast.

Director David Fuller, who co-conceived this adaptation along with Charles Berigan, does give us a full performance of The Mikado, and a very enjoyable one at that, but the evening is really less about the Gilbert and Sullivan show and more about the combination of racial arrogance among the British, who, despite the presence of invading Japanese soldiers in nearby northern Malaya, still did not perceived their non-European foes as a serious threat, and their determination to limit any disruption to their culture and way of life during wartime.

The Mikado, of course, is perhaps the most popular music/theatre piece in the English language. Premiering in 1885, it was inspired by the British obsession with Japanese fashion and art that immediately followed the beginning of trade between the two island empires. Though taking place in the mythical Japanese town of Titipu, this hilarious operetta, still extraordinarily funny today, presents characters that dress as Japanese and refer to themselves as such, but who speak the Queen's English and spoof the British upper crust and English politics.

In this particular case, the stage is so full of John Bull it's easy to forget the Japanese setting. (At one point all the "gentlemen of Japan" are seen waving Union Jacks.) Costume designer Viviane Galloway has the actors wearing simple Asian-style robes that barely conceal their military uniforms and festive party frocks. Likewise, Katherine Day's set design is an appropriately makeshift assemblage of screens and banners made to look pieced together from whatever is available. The actors don't use race-altering makeup but some lyrics are altered to make reference to Hitler, Mussolini and "cowards" who "pull sneak attacks".

As Ko-Ko, the cowardly Lord High Executioner of Titipu, Greg Horton is wonderfully reminiscent of the great British comic Terry-Thomas, with his clipped pomposity and melodically sneering voice. His romantic rival, Nanki-Poo, is played by Martin Fox as a dashing and confident young playboy. David Tillistrand makes for a droll and deadpan Pooh-Bah while Timothy Dunn puts more than a dash of English music hall verve into his portrayal of Pish-Tush. Cristiane Young is a riot as the diva-ish Katisha, singing a wild assortment of vocal inflections for comic effect. Emily Grundstad (Yum-Yum), Bianca Carragher (Pitti-Sing), Heather Mieko (Peep Bo) and David Arthur Bachrach (The Mikado) all make fine contributions. The cast sings extremely well under music director Joel Gelpe and Judith Jarosz's choreography is smart, entertaining and appropriate to the conceit that we're watching an amateur show casually put together by the military.

Andrew Clateman plays Malphal Singh, a character created by Messrs. Fuller and Gelpe. As an Indian servant to the Estebrookes, he acts in the ensemble, plays some spirited percussion and sings a few solo lines, but he's primarily there to tend to all the set changes single-handedly. Though there is no animosity between Singh and the western performers, he is certainly seen as a lower form of human. Though Clateman is funny and energetic in the role, his character's presence serves as a reminder of the racial arrogance that caused the British to underestimate their enemies.

Those knowing the significance of the date December 10, 1941 will no doubt guess the grim turn of events that occur before The Mikado's final chorus is sung. The matter is dealt with delicately and nobly.

Unfortunately, The Singapore Mikado has completed its latest run. Hopefully, Theatre Ten Ten will put this one at the head of its little list of productions to revive.

Photo by Viviane Galloway: Martin Fox and Emily Grundstad


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