Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2006
In true Gilbertian fashion I will give this review two titles: Don’t Mess With My Mikado or Wha’ Happened??
I went to see The Mikado at the Weston Playhouse for fun, not as a theatre critic, but since it turned out to be one of the worst Mikados I’ve ever seen, and the ONLY bad experience I’ve ever had at Weston, I have decided to write about it. Also, the two published reviews – in the Brattleboro Reformer and the Manchester Journal – have been raves. My colleagues have every right to their opinions, but since I disagree on some key points, I thought it worth putting my oar in too.
As regular readers of GailSez.com know, I am a big Gilbert & Sullivan fan. While The Mikado is not my favorite work of theirs, it is one with which I am intimately acquainted since I have directed it twice. I literally know every word of it. I even had a cat named The Mikado (we called him Miki because no self-respecting cat will come when addressed as The Mikado.)
Regular readers will also remember that I am not a D’Oyly Carte traditionalist when it comes to productions of the Savoy Operas. At college I studied with Wilford Leach, whose lively direction of The Pirates of Penzance, starring Linda Rondstadt, Rex Smith, and Kevin Kline, for the New York Public Theatre in 1980 revitalized the way producers, directors, and audiences thought about Gilbert & Sullivan as their great works celebrated their centennial years at the conclusion of the 20th century. There is nothing wrong with taking a fresh approach to Gilbert & Sullivan, and it is perfectly possible to do so without ruining the work or the audience’s experience of it. Someone should explain that to Tim Fort, the director of the current Weston production.
For 121 years audiences have loved The Mikado. Sullivan’s score is splendid and Gilbert’s characters and satire are sharply drawn and hilarious. All you have to do is rent a couple of kimonos and tell everyone to sing out and you can please a crowd with it. Amateurs have been doing it all over the world for decades.
But the Weston Playhouse is anything but an amateur theatre. In fact it is my very favorite area theatre company and I lament the fact that it also the furthest from my home (it takes an hour and twenty minutes one-way from Williamstown, MA, to Weston, VT.) If it were twenty minutes closer I would take a season’s subscription. As it is I eagerly await their season announcement each spring, and save my pennies for tickets to my favorite offering. Often my husband and I make a special “date” out of a Weston show, combining it with lunch in Manchester and a visit to the Vermont Country Store before a matinee.
It wasn't until after I had purchased my tickets that I understood that Fort had decided to stage this production as a disaster-ridden technical rehearsal. In other words the actors pretended that there wasn’t an audience. Before the show they dribbled in, in their “street clothes” while the stage manager made a series of “comic” announcements over the PA system about remembering to wear underwear and not bringing food or rollerblades into the theatre (of course cast members immediately appeared clutching those very items.) Then the stage manager announced that the truck containing the costumes had broken down in East Wallingford, a charming hamlet just southeast of Rutland, and that Act I would be performed without them.
Now obviously the street clothes the actors were wearing were actually carefully chosen costumes designed by Martha Mann, but despite an announcement during intermission that the “costumes” had arrived and that they should be donned for the second act, many of the chorus members stayed in their “street clothes” for the entire performance. It looked sloppy, it smacked of a “clever” way to scrimp on the costume budget, and, most annoying of all, it distracted from the show.
Apparently Fort and company are under the mistaken impression that Brandon and I had traveled an hour and twenty minutes to see THEM, when we had actually come to see The Mikado. In an interview in the program guide that Weston helpfully publishes for each of their productions, Fort is quoted as saying that he believes “most theatre audiences are fascinated with seeing the mechanism of theatre” and that seeing the actors in the “street clothes” helps the audience “see a little bit about who they are when they’re not these characters, which affects how they play their characters.”
Ummm, no, Mr. Fort. Audiences are fascinated by a good show well produced and solidly performed. They could care less about whether the guy playing Nanki-Poo has the hots for the girl playing Peep-Bo or the guy playing Pish-Tush because either way it adds nothing to the show. Having the actors pretend they don’t know the audience is there and “act normal” does not change the fact that they know full well that we are there, we know that they know, and we know that they are acting anything but “normal.” If your mezzo had really scratched her cornea while mountain-biking the audience would certainly be sympathetic and understand if she needed to wear an eye-patch during the performance (I think a Katisha with an eye-patch could be quite intriguing), but having her barge in, interrupting a song in progress to make an obviously scripted announcement about a fake injury, is just dumb and wildly annoying to the people who have paid good money to see the show.
Fort also intimates that he believes that The Mikado and specifically the making-up of Caucasian performers to appear Asian, is politically incorrect now that we “appreciate even more the importance of diversity and understanding other cultures as well as the dangers of misunderstanding other cultures.” He goes on to say that everyone knows “The Mikado” isn’t really set in Japan. Duh! The town of Titipu, though nominally Japanese, is merely another of Gilbert’s topsy-turvydoms, like the England of Iolanthe where it is possible for all the entire House of Lords to sprout wings and become fairies, or the nautical cloud-cuckoo-land where the Pirate King commands an entire ship full of orphaned noblemen who have gone wrong. The male chorus clearly explains in the opening number that they are the “Gentlemen of Japan” that you see painted “on vase and jar, on screen and fan” – not real flesh and blood people at all but artists’ renderings. Ko-Ko and Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum and Katisha are characters in a comic operetta whose very purpose is to be politically incorrect. This is SATIRE, which the dictionary defines as “A literary work in which human vice or folly is attacked through irony, derision, or wit.”
But if Fort was looking for a great way to save money on wigs and make-up AND avoid those harpies of political correctness, he might have hired Asian actors. Just a thought.
In the same interview Fort tells us “this will be an extremely well sung The Mikado.” It is not. The casting is wildly uneven. D.B. Bonds as Nanki-Poo, Tracy Michailidis as Yum-Yum, T. Doyle Leverett as The Mikado, and Kelly Ebsary as Katisha all have strong operatically trained voices. The rest of the cast is more musical comedy oriented than opera oriented. I wouldn’t mind all of one style of singing or all of another, but make up your mind.
And even the performances of these talented and Mikado-worthy folks are dimmed and diminished by either distracting “clever” antics or a complete misunderstanding of the characters they are playing. How could Fort not understand what a saucy little minx Yum-Yum is? And yet he has Michaildis playing her all blushes and giggles. The girl who sings “I mean to rule the earth as [the sun rules] the sky” never blushed in her life!
Jim Ortlieb is a very fine Ko-Ko, but it actually took me until the middle of the second act to figure it out because Fort’s “clever” direction managed to make him look an incompetent idiot in Act I. What a disservice to Ortleib, not to mention the audience.
And how badly cast was Andre Montgomery as Pooh-Bah, one of my very favorite roles? I could tell that this was a talented and charismatic performer, but he was all wrong vocally for Pooh-Bah and either he or Fort or both of them completely missed the essence of the character. And don’t get me started about his costume. I have NO IDEA what he was wearing or why, only that it was ridiculous and hideous and very, very, very annoying because, once again, it distracted from the show.
I believe it is Fort who has written all new lyrics for Ko-Ko’s patter song I’ve Got a Little List. He is by no means the first person to do so and audiences always love the contemporary references to folks we would be happy to see beheaded forthwith, but does he not understand why the line that gets the biggest laugh, indeed a round of applause, is : “…and directors who on spoiling Gilbert’s masterwork insist. I don’t think they’d be missed. I’m SURE they’d not be missed.” Don’t mess with my Mikado, Mr. Fort. Give heed to the old saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The Mikado runs through August 19 at the Weston Playhouse (802-824-5288), on Rt. 100 in Weston, VT. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission. It is suitable for all ages. Call the box office at 802-824-5288 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006