Pacific Opera Project 2019 Review: The Mikado
Pure Uncomplicated Fun From The Ever Vibrant CompanyBy Gordon Williams
(Photo: Martha Benedict)
The 1912 Ebell Club in Los Angeles’ Highland Park has been the venue for a number of Pacific Opera Project performances. It’s a favorite venue for their popular show “La boheme: AKA: The Hipsters”. And its informal setting worked well for this intimate version of “The Mikado,” in which the audience was able to sit close at supper tables and enjoy a uniquely delightful and topically funny twist on what essentially remained Gilbert and Sullivan’s Victorian-era classic.
In an “OperaWire” interview with POP’s Executive and Artistic Director and this production’s director and designer Josh Shaw last November, I noted the fact that POP was doing “The Mikado” and Puccini’s “Madam Butterfly” in the one season: “Are you commenting on ‘Japaneserie’?” I asked, thinking of the sort of “yellowface” that has gotten opera companies into trouble in the recent past.
“I don’t know if we’re commenting on it. If we’re going to get away with ‘Mikado’, this is the year,” said Shaw, referring to the fact that POP’s “Butterfly” back in April was done in Japanese – a respectful nod to cultural authenticity that no other opera company has ever ventured. Shaw then added, “’Mikado’ is my favorite operas of all time,” which may explain why this production came across as uncomplicated fun. I certainly had a big smile on my face throughout the whole two and a half hours.
POP’s “Mikado” was updated from the traditional setting of Meiji-era Japan (1868-1912) to modern-day Japan where young people get about in those garish and punky styles of clothes named after the Tokyo fashion-district, Harajuku.
The real upshot for me in this decision was not actually the arrestingly colorful costumes – though they were there – but a real sense of energy onstage. In the case of the “train of little ladies,” the chorus of schoolgirls who include in their midst the heroine Yum-Yum and her friends Peep-Bo and Pitti-Sing, there was a sense of teenage mayhem in their riotous reaction to Pooh-Bah, the pompous office-holder of everything (an appropriately gruff, Phil Meyer).
The screaming hilarity of the “little maids from school” to Pooh-Bah’s condescending, almost grotesque, “How de do, little girls, how to do ?” was in striking contrast to the demure tittering you often get from a chorus dressed in the more traditional (for Gilbert and Sullivan) garb of kimonos.
An Excellent Cast
POP’s cast for this production was excellent. Right from the start, from the male chorus’s “We Are Gentlemen of Japan,” I found myself reflecting on the fact that the diction was exceptionally clear at all times – an important consideration when delivering Gilbert’s lines.
E. Scott Levin as Ko-Ko, the tailor who got himself promoted beyond his capabilities to become the town of Titipu’s Lord High Executioner, was a bundle of focused energy and clarity while at the same time projecting a quality of baritone that is usually a secondary consideration in traditional casting for Gilbert and Sullivan’s “patter role.”
Janet Todd, who had played Butterfly in POP’s April production (and learnt the Japanese role in less than two weeks!) was a rich-voiced Yum-Yum.
Charlie Kim brought a lovely and appropriately lyrical quality to his role as Yum-Yum’s suitor, the tenor lead Nanki-Poo. His delivery of “A Wand’ring Minstrel” really got me thinking about, and savoring anew, the quality of Sullivan’s melodies. And about half-way through the show I realized the whole cast was speaking in British accents that I, born in the Commonwealth, found quite convincing!
If you’re playing the Mikado himself, you have to wait three-quarters of the show to make your entrance, and I dare say singers sweat on it. Matthew Ian Welch’s sadistic, dancing generalissimo – quite a contrast to the usually sedate “heavenly sovereign” – was well worth the wait, and his delivery of “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime” deservedly stopped the show.
Bringing It To Today
The production’s shallow set had everyone forward as appropriate for a nightclub-style of auditorium.
In fact, I felt that the steps leading to a higher level were barely necessary except to house the full chorus and conceal the orchestra. A couple of times, I felt as though business was being invented to justify going up.
But as I mentioned, the orchestra was housed under the upper level of the steps (under those stairs) and I wondered how difficult it must be for the conductor to maintain control when the cast is facing away from you for most of the production. Music Director Parisa Zaeri must have rehearsed tempi with great exactitude, and the confident singing in this show was one of its great strengths.
POP often updates the words to their productions and of course “The Mikado” offers two notable opportunities for updated lyrics, in this case written by Kelsey Shaw. An audience-member sitting in the Ebell Club no doubt appreciated Ko-Ko’s lines in his “Little List” of people eyed for the block:
“There’s the pestilential hipsters who inhabit Highland Park
Driving hybrids by the hundreds, leaving nowhere left to park.”
And you don’t have to live over that side to appreciate the inclusion in the Mikado’s list of criminals fit for punishment:
“All vapid social media posters who
Quote every dull cliché
Are sent to a city where WiFi is shitty
And iPhones are thrown away!”
These were substitutions that added topicality to a show that had already been updated effectively through costume and design. And yet, it is ironic perhaps, that this take on “The Mikado” – traditionalists might consider it irreverent – actually had me marveling anew at the freshness of Gilbert’s original lyrics and the ageless attractiveness of Sullivan’s music.
“The Mikado” was first produced in 1885 and it can still be performed in the hipster heaven of Highland Park.