Last night in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theatre, Lamplighters Music Theatre presented the first of four performances of its latest production, The New Mikado: Una Commedia Musicale! The basic idea was to take the plot of The Mikado; or the Town of Titipu and transplant it in Renaissance Milan. This had a few potential advantages in getting over some of Mikado’s less agreeable characteristics, beginning with the questionable “political correctness” of what amounted to a cast of proper British ladies and gentlemen pretending to be Japanese and including at least one line from W. S. Gilbert’s verse that has become decided unacceptable. Arthur Sullivan’s music, on the other hand, could be left totally intact, since, even when he was trying to evoke Oriental sonorities, it was difficult for him to venture far from more familiar Italianate roots.
This revision of a Gilbert and Sullivan classic was the brainchild of Music Director Baker Peeples and Stage Director Ellen Brooks, who, together with Barbara Heroux and Rick Williams, were responsible for all modifications to both the script and the lyrics. There tended to be fewer of these than one might have expected. True, the audience was almost immediately hit by the transplantation with a pair of Milanese poets wandering around the auditorium and a pair of street performers on the stage. Those perusing the program also discovered that all the characters had Italian names, although sounding each one out was all that was necessary to associate it with Gilbert’s original creations. Sullivan’s overture, conducted by Peeples, was as familiar as ever; but then the curtain rose on the male chorus singing about being “gentlemen of Milan;” and the territorial shift was firmly established. Nevertheless, just about all of Gilbert’s elegantly crafted rhymed couplets were still there, as applicable to Italians as they had been to Japanese. The most notable change probably involved Piccia Tuccia (Pish-Tush), sung by Michael Orlinsky, fondling his dagger a bit too much. (Was he channeling Carlo Gesualdo?)
“As some day it may happen,” on the other hand, was totally overhauled, thus eliminating that word that was less offensive in nineteenth-century London than it is today. Rather than singing about the nuisances of Gilbert’s day, Coco (Ko-Ko), sung by Samuel Rabinowitz, ran through a litany of irritations in San Francisco life, each one hitting its mark as squarely as any of Gilbert’s words could. The familiarity of every phrase had the entire house in stitches.
The treatment of words in Japanese, on the other hand, registered with a more elite portion of the audience. The loud chorus of “O ni! bikkuri shakkuri to!,” intended to drown out Catiscià (Katisha), sung by Anne Hubble, at the end of the first act, translated into “Amor vincit omnia!” (Latin for “love conquers all”). However, more elite humor surfaced when the words for the entry of Il Ducato (the Mikado), “Mi-ya Sa-ma,” were transformed into the most familiar of the goliard poems (“O Fortuna”) thanks to the efforts of Carl Orff.
Taken as a whole this was a production that never missed a beat. It is therefore important to remind readers that three more performances remain at 2 p.m. today (Saturday) and tomorrow (Sunday) and one at 8 p.m. tonight. Most likely the demand for tickets will be high. Readers should consult the event page on the Web site for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to check for availability.