The New “Mikado” Reflects Changed Times

by Jean Schiffman

The Lamplighters rises to the challenge of reworking G&S’s popular operetta into a more culturally sensitive piece, without sacrificing its satirical humor.

It's time for a reimagined "The Mikado," the ever-popular, absurdly hilarious operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan that premiered in London in 1885.

In fact, it may well be past that time: The satirical comedy, with W.S. Gilbert's witty libretto and Arthur Sullivan's memorably catchy tunes, is set in a fictional Japan (read: Victorian England) that many today perceive as culturally insensitive.

Thus, after discussions with the local Asian-American theater community-especially, early this year, with founding artistic director Lily Tung Crystal of theater company Ferocious Lotus-San Francisco's venerable G&S company, Lamplighters Music Theatre, offers a new version of the old favorite for the 21 st century.

Of course, just as Shakespeare's plays have long been subject to wildly different interpretations, not all "Mikado"s have been set in Japan; for example, in 1986, "Monty Python" actor Eric Idle played Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, in an English National Opera production that director Jonathan Miller set in a 1920s seaside hotel.

But this 22nd Lamplighters production of the show (which the company first staged in 1953, the year following its founding by Orva Hoskinson and Ann Pool MacNab) is not only set in another time and place-Milan, Italy, during the Renaissance, to be specific-the script is delicately tweaked to excise material that doesn't correspond to the new concept.

"The New Mikado: Una Commedia Musicale" features nine principals (two actors are cast in each principal role, appearing on alternate nights), two 16-member choruses (male and female) and a 21-piece orchestra led by the company's longtime music director Baker Peeples.

In the musical, the hapless, good-natured Ko-Ko, imprisoned for the illegal act of flirtation, is suddenly released, appointed Lord High Executioner and required, for patently silly reasons, to behead someone-anyone-and soon. Meanwhile, the prince, disguised as a wand'ring minstrel, is hopelessly in love with the Executioner's delectable fiancée, while the Executioner himself secretly pines for a particularly unattractive older woman. Everyone wants to love, but the nonsensical and restrictive laws of the land work against them. Just so were G&S lampooning their own country's tight-laced social milieu, and probably chose Japan as their stand-in for England to coincide with the fairly recent opening up of trade between Europe and Japan, and the English fascination with Japonism. Gilbert noted that the setting offered the opportunity for "picturesque treatment, scenery and costume."

But the characters they created, with their infantile, faux-Asian names; the West's long history of relegating Far Eastern culture to exotica, or "orientalism"; and the ongoing theatrical practice of portraying Asians as comic stereotypes and of casting Caucasians to play Asians, sometimes in yellowface-is perceived by many as racist. Indeed, a 2014 production of "The Mikado" in Seattle raised eyebrows, and a more recent staging, scheduled by New York's Gilbert and Sullivan Players, was cancelled after widespread Asian-American protest. (Even in 1907, when a Japanese prince visited England, the British government banned all performances of "The Mikado" for six weeks.)

"We'd been thinking about [making a change] ever since the controversy in Seattle," acknowledges Peeples, who has music-directed five previous "Mikado"s. He'd talked to Asian-American friends and supporters, asked them if they thought "The Mikado" was racist. "They said, yeah, some things are uncomfortable, and the names are part of it," he reports. "We think of them as Victorian nursery names, but they smack of 'Wing-Fat,' that hyphenated type of name that can turn into a taunt or slur in the wrong hands." Once it was clear that there would be no more ersatz Asia on its stage, the Lamplighters-an award-winning company whose repertory spans the entire surviving G&S canon of 14 musicals, plus other musicals such as "Candide" and "A Little Night Music"-wondered how to preserve rhyme and scansion in a play that, for instance, opens with the lyrics "If you want to know who we are/We are gentlemen of Japan." Director Ellen Brooks, who directed "The Mikado" for Lamplighters 12 years ago (and worked as the company's principal lighting designer for more than eight years), had initially planned to create a half-Japanese, half-Westernized "Mikado," set during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1910), to show Japan's cultural transformation, how it evolved from a closed society to a modern state. An aficionado of Japanese theatrical forms, she wasn't sure she'd be the right director for some other iteration of the zany tale.

The Mikado. Ben Brady as Il Ducato (double cast with Charles Martin) and So- nia Gariaeff as Catiscià (double cast with Anne Hubble). Photo by David Allen, 2016.

It was Peeples' daughter who pointed out that "Milan" rhymes with "Japan," and from there things fell into place. Brooks, as it happens, is a connoisseur of the Italian Renaissance. Peeples Googled favorite baby names in Italy, so now Nanki-Poo (which was once British baby-talk for "handkerchief") is Niccolu; his heart's desire, the beautiful Yum-Yum, has been renamed Amiam; the Mikado himself (the now-obsolete word that referred to the emperor) is the Ducato, the ruler of the city-state of Milan; and the town square is not in Titipu but in Tiramisu. In some cases, only the spelling needed changing: Ko-Ko became Coco. All in all, says Peeples, the company changed 299 words-1.7 percent of the whole libretto-but not one musical note.

Some references had to be cut, as well-13, says Brooks. And the company can no longer use the Lamplighters' "Mikado" set, which was completely Japanese. But aside from cultural sensitivity, there are other advantages to the new version. "In the early Renaissance," says Brooks, "you have a time when young women are prized for their virginity but . . . had sexual knowledge. Their purity made them marriageable but they could socialize with the rest of society as long as they were supervised. That gave us more freedom [than the previously planned Japanese setting] in terms of staging, movement and fun."

For costume designer Miriam Lewis, the switch to the Italian Renaissance necessitated building an entire new wardrobe. She seized upon the fashions of the era-its cut of clothing, its colors and embellishments-with alacrity, although without aiming for a literal depiction.

At a recent rehearsal for scenes and songs from Act I at the Lamplighters' rehearsal space and costume shop, she points out the in-progress costume for Coco, mounted on a dressmaker's dummy: white and striped fabrics forming a sort of layered jacket. Her aim, she says, is to reflect the humanistic exuberance of the period, when the Church was no longer arbiter of all things, the middle class was rising and individuals increasingly empowered. The costumes represent the people's newfound sense of self: a colorful palette of plums, reds, golds, greens and blues.

On the scratched-wooden floor of the rehearsal room, two Cocos, each actor with his own idiosyncratic approach to the bumbling character, work through some of the show's funniest Act I songs. The male chorus, ranging in age from white-haired and -bearded to distinctly youthful, practices a tricky sequence of synchronized head-snaps. "Let's clean up our stances, gentleman," says Brooks. "Do not saunter or amble! These are men who know what they're doing." Around them, the boxes of wigs, racks of costumes and shelves of Styrofoam heads decked with broad-brimmed hats attest to Lamplighters' longevity. "We have a lot [of longtime patrons] who don't want to see changes," remarks Brooks. "But the issue is part of a major political conversation taking place all around the country. We've gotten emails from theaters in the Midwest who want to find out what we're doing with 'The Mikado,' and how. There's a lot of scrutiny going on.

"No one wants to eliminate it from the repertory," she adds. "The script is just wonderful."

To prove the point, in the rehearsal room, Coco, Poobà (Lord High Everything Else) and Piccia Tuccia are talk-singing, in unison, and with much emphasis, the final, tongue-twisting stanza of a song near the end of Act I, in which they are discussing which one of them might volunteer to be beheaded, thereby fulfilling the Ducato's quota:

To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,

In a pestilential prison, with lifelong lock,

Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,

From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block.

A dull, dark dock!

A lifelong lock!

A short, sharp shock!

A big black block!

The New Mikado

Aug. 18-21

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., San Francisco

Aug. 5-7

Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Dr., Walnut Creek

Aug. 13 & 14

Mt. View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mt. View

Aug. 27 & 28

Bankhead Theater, 2400 First St., Livermore