For his "Mikado" Carpenter has faced head-on the question, "Is this a show about the Japanese? Or the English? Or relevant to Americans today?" and decided to come down on all sides of it simultaneously. I have directed an amateur "Mikado", and the first thing I told my cast was "Don't 'play English', don't mimic music hall performers or what you've seen of D'Oyly Carte. It will set all but the G&S nuts in your audience at a distance. Besides which, I don't know anybody who has the acting chops to do all that and be convincing characters in the story, too." According to an interview he gave the Boston Phoenix, Carpenter agrees about the danger of distancing. The director is quoted as saying, "People started doing the form of [the Mikado] and embroidering the bits. But when you get away from the storytelling, you've got nothing but a bunch of bits." However, Carpenter's cast gets away with a multitude of choreographed bits cribbed from the Music Hall-- because Carpenter has lined up performers who do have the chops. His actors can turn on a syllable from the slick execution of a traditional comic routine to a blazingly "real" moment wherein their characters experience utter bliss, or stark terror, or aching loss-- and do it on their marks and at perfect pitch.
Carpenter makes this possible-- nay, he demands it-- by setting his "Mikado" at one of its own Victorian dress rehearsals. Possibly one that takes place backstage at London's Savoy Theatre. More likely, the set represents a provincial rehearsal hall where one of the numerous touring G & S companies is doing a pre opening brush up. There, the troupe of operetta performers all begin the run through round a battered upright piano in respectably pale or mud colored Victorian mufti. The portly principal bass who plays the title role (Kenneth Kantor) takes over W.S. Gilbert's responsibility for keeping an eye on the staging, while the Junoesque artiste who will be the comic villainess Katisha (Marsha Bagwell) dons an apron to supervise the distribution of costumes and hand props.
While adding props to the singing of "If you want to know who we are/We are gentlemen of Japan" the male chorus must tuck their gilded fans inside their drab Victorian vests when they are not flourishing them in choreographed Oriental splendor. Still, when flourishing, the fans sketch an impression, a style, that is unmistakably that of an idealized Japan, the Japan whose art and decor was all the rage in 19th century England. Banners appear, their silks of a blinding intensity. Piece by piece the cast adds costumes and wigs, each more splendid than the ones before. The mythical Japanese town of Titipu is inhabited exclusively by aesthetes of unlimited budget. Even the Wandering Minstrel Nanki-Poo's poor threads and patches are of museum quality. This gorgeous assault on the eyes acts in concert with the rich toned singing of Sullivan's melting melodies to drench the audience in beauty; a beauty poured over the senses like syrup and as disorienting as opium.
Meanwhile, Gilbert's plot is both brutal and preposterous. Nanki-Poo loves the beauteous Yum-Yum, one of "Three Little Maids from School". She, however, is to wed her guardian Ko-Ko, formerly a cheap tailor but recently appointed Lord High Executioner. By the Mikado's decree the Lord High must execute someone within the month or else die himself-- he has already been sentenced for the capital crime of flirting-- but Ko-Ko is so tender-hearted that he can only reconcile himself to beheading someone who wishes to die. The would-be suicide is Nanki-Poo, about to hang himself for thwarted love of Yum-Yum. They make an agreement that Nanki-Poo will be allowed to marry Yum-Yum, and then after a month's honeymoon be beheaded as Ko-Ko's willing substitute. But before the wedding takes place, the formidable middle aged aristocrat Katisha tracks Nanki-Poo to Titipu, and claims him as her runaway husband -- they were officially betrothed years ago. The townsfolk are awed by Katisha's magnificence, but rally to shout her down and shoo her away from the young couple. As she goes, she threatens: "Prepare for woe... my wrongs with vengeance shall be crowned."
In fact, the threat of dire consequence is not only the motor of the plot of "The Mikado", but the basis of most of the cruel humor in Gilbert's witty lyrics. Not just the bloodthirsty "Let the Punishment Fit the Crime", but three more songs are entirely devoted to the various excruciating punishments prescribed for minor infractions of good taste or proper manners. Other songs mourn the inevitable injuries time itself inflicts. As for relevance, characters who anticipate the infliction of these tortures with brutal glee do not seem so far-fetched in our post enlightenment era, when politicians go on TV to boast about how righteous they are, having passed laws under which a mother can be imprisoned for twenty years and stripped of the custody of her children for having the bad taste to share living quarters with someone who deals in an illegal abusable substance. At its best, the partnership of Sullivan and Gilbert provides abundant sensual delights and sentimental pleasures in the highest degree, subject as they often are in life to arbitrary iron laws and random reversals of fortune. The Supreme Creator and Larry Carpenter appear to work along similar lines.
"Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day" a madrigal for Yum-Yum, Nanki-Poo, Pitti-Sing, and Pish-Tush, is my favorite G&S song. I persuaded the choir to sing it at my daughter's wedding-- with a teensy alteration of the lyric towards optimism. It is sung at North Shore with exquisite musicality, and staged as a veddy veddy English tea break. Delicate flowered porcelain pot and cups set out on a rough packing case. Punctilious manners, enforced by a hand slap when the tenor reaches for a scone out of turn.
James Javore sets the highest of standards in the very first number, supplying a Pish-Tush who sings and acts far better than is really necessary. Like those of the younger members of the gloriously full-throated chorus, Eric van Hoven's credits are mostly in opera. As Nanki-Poo, Van Hoven's lyric tenor is a pleasure to hear, and his acting mercifully unmannered. Marie Danvers also has a string of vocally demanding roles to her credit, but I was more impressed by her acting than by her voice, though the voice is pleasant enough. Danvers' Yum Yum does love herself best and put her own interests first, getting the laughs owed to a typically spoiled adolescent beauty. But in Danvers' characterization of the ingenue there is room for Yum Yum to show affection for her guardian and her friends, and a shy potential for growth; as well as suggesting another set of traits for the somewhat more mature English professional who is playing Yum Yum.
Pitti Sing's part, though secondary, is one of the best G&S created for a female, and Kari McGee does it justice. J.B. Adams is all practiced smoothness and insinuation as the thoroughly corrupt old pro of a bureaucrat, Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else. Kenneth Kantor, the evil Vizier in last season's Kismet at North Shore, as the Mikado has no trouble asserting dominance even in a cast as strong as this one.
Larry Paulsen's Ko-Ko was pronounced by my friend the G & S expert as "The Best ever", and even considering that I have seen far fewer Ko-Kos than the expert has I am prepared to endorse that verdict. I simply can't imagine a better one. Paulsen's extensive program credits are heavy with Shakespeare, and do not mention any other musical theatre-- is it possible that he hasn't trained as a singer? Be that as it may, Paulsen sings extraordinarily well-- in about a dozen different voices, from a thin sweet tenor to a rich baritone. His speaking voice seems to compass just about every sound a human can make, just as his compact body bounces and flutters and trips and flops and dances with whatever degree of grace he chooses to employ. Yet nothing his Ko-Ko does seems excessive, or anything other than the most natural response to what is happening to him.
Paulsen's wooing scene with Marsha Bagwell's Katisha is spectacular. Bagwell is huge, Paulsen tiny. Bagwell's presence is Olympian, her rage a force of nature; her voice a trumpet on top and a velvet cello in the lower register. When she allows her contralto tones to plunge into vulnerability and sorrow, singing "Alone, and yet Alive!" Bagwell would draw tears from a stone. Ko-Ko, stripped of his Lord High costume and looking very much the desperate second banana on provincial tour, approaches Katisha at the actresses' dressing table, where she sits in an old wrapper sans wig and make-up, contemplating the ravages of time. Paulsen sort of tiptoes around his fellow player at first, tossing little bouquets of sympathetic flattery and then darting back as if from the rim of a volcano. His sudden declaration of passionate love is so intense that, as good actors occasionally do, he convinces himself as well as his audience. Then he uses the virtuoso charms of his "Tit Willow" song to weave a spell of mutual attraction round his perilous prey. Once past their joyous bonding duet, "There Is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast", with Katisha staunchly at his side reinvested in her robes and dignity, Paulsen's Ko-Ko expands to fill the finery he will wear to face the Mikado. He is larger than life, a man capable of anything.
And just how is all of this Japanese? It reminds me of a story from Zen Buddhism.
A monk, fleeing from a lion, dangles off the top of a bottomless ravine at the
end of a rope. A white mouse and a black mouse trot up to the cliff edge, and
begin to chew through the rope's slender strands. The terrified monk sees a bunch
of ripe grapes growing just out of reach. Clinging to the rope with one hand,
with a mighty effort he grabs one grape and pops it into his mouth. As the rope
breaks and the monk falls, he is heard to cry out "Delicious!"