Bringing 'The Mikado' to Durango
Durango Lively Arts stages Gilbert and Sullivan classic

by Judith Reynolds

As surely as flowers bloom late in Colorado, a late plot twist in “The Mikado” makes everything all right. Young lovers pair up properly. The old marry the old, and a mean potentate rescinds a stupid law executing flirts and other misfits. The Mikado, ruler of all Japan, finally makes nice.

There, I gave away the ending. But the Durango Lively Arts Co. will forgive me. Everyone knows a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta will have a happy, Hollywood ending. And “The Mikado” is no exception. It has been the most popular work by two of Great Britain’s most prominent musical geniuses for more than 100 years.

Durango Lively Arts will open its rendition of “The Mikado” on April 24 in the Smiley Theatre. In the DLAC tradition, Director Nicholas Sandner has assembled an intergenerational cast with an age range of a whopping 60 years. That translates into a collection of middle and high school chorus members to baritone Duane Heidenreich as Pooh-Bah from the Durango Choral Society

Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated on “The Mikado” beginning in 1884. It was written at the height of the Victorian era when lists, rules and hierarchies held high importance, such a convenient way of organizing society. Add to that Gilbert and Sullivan’s tendency to mock government and the social order, and you have the foundation for any number of G&S operettas – “The Pirates of Penzance,” “Princess Ida,” “Trial by Jury.”

Japan was emerging from medieval obscurity onto the world stage. Trade expanded, and big exhibitions of Japanese culture drew huge crowds in London in particular. It’s well known that William S. Gilbert, the librettist of the pair, visited the Japanese Exhibition in Knightsbridge and came away inspired to write an operetta set in Japan.

When “Mikado” opened on March 14, 1885, a theater critic for the London Daily Telegraph wrote: “We are all being more or less Japanned.”

“The Mikado” is set in a fictional town called Titipu. The name sounds like baby talk – as do most of the cast names: Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, Pish-Tush – I need not go on. It turns out that Gilbert, a man of compulsive habits when it came to research, may have known about the real town of Chichibu, Japan. Did he merely change a few consonants?

One of the ironies of the work’s history is that the Tokyo Theater Co. has adapted “Mikado” and performs it regularly at a home base in Chichibu, Japan. In 2007, the Chichibu company went on an international tour with its version of “Mikado.” From 1885 until now, there is a consensus that the Japanese have not found “Mikado” to be offensive in its comic-book portrayal of their society.

The plot is so silly it’s barely worth writing about, but here’s the back-story: Nanki-Poo, the son of The Mikado of Japan, has fled his father’s tyranny and disguised himself as an itinerant musician. He loves Yum-Yum, but she is a ward of Ko-Ko, an old tailor who lives in Titipu. Under a ridiculous new law against flirting, Ko-Ko is at first guilty then miraculously put in charge of executions. Various nobles, lords, a significant matron, three little girls from school, and a chorus round out the cast. The play begins in Titipu and gets more complicated before the happy ending.

“The Mikado” is a romp, and director Nicholas Sandner promises plenty of updated references. After all, the work is famous for its “list” songs.

“Probably the most famous one,” Sandner said in an interview last week, “is sung by Pish-Tush (Wendy Ludgewait): ‘I’ve got a little list.’ The role traditionally belongs to a baritone, but frankly, we didn’t have enough guys at auditions. Wendy said she was up for the role – singing in her alto range. She’s playing Pish-Tush as a boy with a lisp, which makes the list song all the funnier – and she’s updated the lyrics.”

Other cast members include Christopher vanDyck as Nanki-Poo, Jamie Smith as Yum-Yum, Steve Blaylock as Ko-Ko, Linda Mack Berven as Katisha, Duane Heidenreich as Pooh-Bah, Josh Grigsby as the Mikado, and Gabi Sauer and Emily Sandner as two of “the three little girls from school,” Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo.

You can get the whole bowl of rice when DLAC opens its production this Friday. •

 

 

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