Monday, August 26, 2019

The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan (Pacific Opera Project 2019)

My wife has been a Gilbert and Sullivan fan probably since birth, and, as with Broadway shows, she has vast swaths of the lyrics memorized. Alas, even in the cultural Mecca of California, live G&S shows have been hard to come by. We did go see a local version of HMS Pinafore years ago - probably before kids - that had a live piano accompaniment. (By the delightful Warren Dobson, now with the Gaslight Melodrama.) However, that has been it. So we watched movie versions, listened to soundtracks, and kept an eye open for more. 

A musician colleague of mine forwarded the schedule for the Pacific Opera Project (she played for one of their larger orchestras), and we snapped up tickets to see The Mikado

This particular production was at a fairly intimate venue in Highland Park (off of Los Angeles’ oldest freeway), and was done in a brightly colored Harajuku Style. Which was a lot of fun. Also appreciated was the use of a live orchestra - a very small orchestra (12 instruments), due to space constraints - but an orchestra nonetheless. The musicians were under part of the set, but on the back of the stage, which meant we could see a bit when they were not blocked by actors. 

 My wife got this picture - POP allows pictures as long as you don't annoy your fellow patrons.

For those unfamiliar with The Mikado, it combines a love story with satire of bureaucracy and British institutions. The lovely Yum-Yum is engaged to marry her guardian, Ko-Ko, who has escaped a death sentence for “flirting” by agreeing to become the Lord High Executioner of Titipu. Since Ko-Ko himself is under a death sentence, the theory is that he cannot execute anyone until he first executes himself, thus making the other flirts safe. Yum-Yum does not love him - he’s at least twice her age - but prefers the dashing Nanki-Poo, a handsome young musician. Okay, he is just disguised as a musician, but is really the son of the Mikado, on the lam his father and an arranged marriage to the ancient and overbearing Katisha. The town of Titipu is ruled (if that is what you can call it) by Pooh-Bah, who holds literally every position except that of executioner. The Mikado finds out that no executions have been done, and threatens to eliminate Ko-Ko’s job and demote Titipu to the status of village. (As Pooh-Bah quips in one of the many “updates” to the script, “We will be known as the Village People.”) Nanki-Poo is in despair over Yum-Yum’s engagement, and prepares to kill himself. Ko-Ko sees an opportunity to find someone else to execute other than himself. But then the Mikado shows up looking for his son, and, well things get awkward for everyone. This being a comedy (and Gilbert and Sullivan), it has to end well. And humorously. 

We brought the kids along to this one, in part because the tickets (if you sit in the cheap seats rather than at a dinner table) are shockingly affordable. And because the kids love live theater and know many of the songs already. We all very much enjoyed ourselves. I will add that even though ours were the only kids there, the staff was courteous and welcoming. 

The production was outstanding - I can’t really think of anything to complain about. The balance of voices and orchestra was good, the enunciation solid (which is not easy in G&S), and both acting and singing were enjoyable. 

E. Scott Levin played the part of Ko-Ko, and, now that I am back home, I realize that he has performed with us at the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra. (A quick search and it appears he was Don Bartolo in our concert version of The Barber of Seville. And I think Don Giovanni before that.) Anyway, he was great when he was with us, and was delightful in The Mikado as well. As in, really hilarious. Great comic timing and acting. Mr. Levin, if you somehow run across this post, here’s a hello from Bakersfield. All the best. 

 Selfie time for Nanki-Poo, Ko-Ko, and Yum-Yum. POP publicity photo.

Phil Meyer as Pooh-Bah deserves a mention, if for no other reason than the opening line in his bio: “Phil Meyer’s opera repertory consists of Bad Guys, Old Guys, and Funny Guys.” Which is exactly what a tall baritone tends to get cast as. It’s the nature of opera. 


 Pish, Tush, Nanki-Poo, and Pooh-Bah. POP publicity photo.

Good work from Charlie Kim (Nanki-Poo) Janet Todd (Yum-Yum) as the romantic leads. I should also mention Matthew Ian Welch as The Mikado, who was clearly the best dancer on stage. (Not to denigrate the others.) His performance was electric, and overcame my eight-year-old’s drowsiness at the end of the late night. 

 All hail the Mikado ("Ah so!")

The Pacific Opera Project tries to put interesting spins on the operas they do, including a few lyrical changes with modern references. In this case, that meant that characters took selfies, and complained about people who take selfies. There were two songs just perfect for these modern touches. The first was “I’ve Got A Little List.” 

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found
I've got a little list — I've got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!

Instead of the annoyances in the original, these were filled up with modern blighters, recognizable to anyone who has lived in Los Angeles. They included such persons as those who pick political fights on social media, instagramers, and - a marvelous touch - those who add apostrophes where they do not belong. And people who think we’d be safer with a wall. (Well played.) 

This theme is continued in “Let the Punishment Fit The Crime.” The familiar driver (presumably in a BMW) weaving in and out of traffic (anyone who grew up in LA knows what I am talking about) gets condemned to walk...or suffer through LA’s abysmally incomplete public transportation system. 

There were more that were funny, but I can’t recall them all now, alas. In any case, well done guys and gals. 

I mentioned the set and costumes briefly, but wanted to say a bit about that. The colors were so bright and saturated that the world on stage seemed unworldly. Not Japan or England or Los Angeles, but perhaps Wonderland. Pretty much every character had a fan as a prop, and these were used to great effect. Snapping open and closed on the beat and as punctuation, they reinforced the acting and emotions. As a metaphor, they added an extra layer. Pooh-Bah, who has his titles, but is hapless in doing any of his jobs, can’t master his fan. Eventually, he shows up with a comically tiny fan, perhaps to represent his diminished ego in the presence of the Mikado. 

 Snap those fans, ladies!

In contrast, Katisha (played with impressive dourness by Adelaide Sinclair), unfolds a ludicrously giant fan upon her appearance. It goes well with her booming deep voice and overwhelming personality. She towers over Nanki-Poo, and even causes Pooh-Bah to shrink. (And, of course, keeps talking over the Mikado to his great annoyance and to the amusement of everyone else.) 

 Never mess with a woman with a giant fan. Ko-ko is giving it his best effort, though...

Another interesting touch was making the character of Pish-Tush into two. Well, almost two. In point of fact, he becomes a pair of Siamese twins (Pish and Tush), who finish each other’s sentences. 

There are so many other things I could say, but this has already gotten long. It was a good time, the operetta was well done, and we want to go back again. 


  1. Pish and Tush? How interesting! I was just thinking, Ko-Ko is Lord High Executioner (a personage of noble rank and title), and Pooh-Bah is Lord High Everything Else. So what is Pish-Tush, I thought, other than the third for trios? (See "I Am So Proud," a number I adore.)

    So how do they handle that with an additional voice?

    1. So, my understanding is that Pish-Tush is a nobleman of lowish rank who is essentially Pooh-Bah's "Yes Man" or lackey. And also a third voice for the trio.

      In this production, they traded lines, finished each other's sentences, and occasionally doubled the voice. Since this was a quality professional production, it was totally seamless, and in perfect balance.