The Fairy Princess went to see the ‘new’ Re-imagined Mikado.
As she told the Michael Cooper from New York Times, she was ‘cautiously optimistic’.
Yes, on New Year’s Eve, she girded her loins, took her six foot Korean American husband in hand, and dived into the re-invention of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado”, as performed by New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players, which is in it’s 43rd year.
This new production, which is double cast – was directed and choreographed by David Auxier and Assistant Directed by Kelvin Moon Loh. The scenic design was by Anshuman Bhatia, with costume design by Quinto Ott.
TFP does not usually ‘review’ shows per se, and this is not a review – but having ‘ahem’, helped NYGASP come to the conclusion that their past productions needed revision with this blog, she wants those who read this follow up, to understand why this production worked and why Asian Americans should go and see this show which lasts until January 8, 2017.
Also to express to Asian Americans that yes, they CAN bring their children to this particular production, and feel at ease.
Here’s how it was different than the last time TFP had seen it:
No yellowface makeup!
(Katisha could go a bit easier on the brows, but a heavy brow is ‘in’ now, so?)
No outrageous shuffling of feet or excessive gestures meant to convey ‘orientalism’!
Here is what was left – a very enjoyable romp of a G&S classic that in no way takes courage for an Asian American to sit through. It is enjoyable no matter what your background, and that is the point of Gilbert & Sullivan – that we all may enjoy absurdity and music in equal measure.
In fact, if one were a G&S afficianado, one might celebrate that this production has ‘renewed‘, if not ‘saved‘ altogether, this staple of the canon from those who very accurately charged that, as performed in many venues over the last few decades, The Mikado has been, to Asian Americans, an excuse to put racism on the stage.
This is what is different about this production – and, no, it is not a complete ‘win’, there are things – as there always are – that work and do not work about any new production – however this is not a ‘step’ forward, it is a gigantic leap.
One might even say….huge.
Not that any thinking grown ass adult wants to use that particular word anymore, but it is applicable here.
The prologue – which was written by Director David Auxier – does work. It should become a standard around the country. Perhaps the dialogue at times could be tightened and some of the references not quite as broadly broadcast – but this is a rather appropriate way to enter the world of a Victorian Fictional Japan.
What happens is that Gilbert and Sullivan are in a meeting with their Producer, and as an incentive – he gifts them a trunk of treasures from the ‘new’ Japanese exhibition to inspire/bribe them to create a new show. Based on a story that is fiction, but one that was told by Gilbert himself, he is hit on the head with a sword from the collection, faints, and boom – we are ‘in’ his world of The Mikado.
This premise, and the way in which it is done, and the way in which Gilbert is thus a character in “The Mikado” he is imagining, makes vast amounts of sense. Instantly the audience is made aware that no, this is not Japan, this is a fantasy. In that fantasy are characters we have already been introduced to in the prologue – Gilbert weaves this dream with the faces he already knows – faces which are not altered in any way to be anything other than their own.
TFP saw Chris Vaughn who gave the pompous and creative Gilbert a ‘life’, even when he was an observer in scenes. The way Gilbert is woven in and out of the dialogue is very smart – and again, keeps the audience aware of the ‘invention’ of the world.
The costumes are Victorian English, with elements of design that suggest Japan – or rather “Asia’ in the way someone who has never been to an Asian country, whose only exposure has been in fabrics and rugs and object d’art would suggest- in that of the trimmings and fabric choices.
TFP wants to give a shout out to the cast of the performance on Dec. 31 – they looked entirely at ease with the new setting and costumes. They were relaxed and adept – which made the crowd relax. No one was worried about ‘putting on’ another ethnic facade – and so they ‘played’ the show with every bit of honesty and fun that Gilbert and Sullivan intended. In that, it was one of the strongest Mikados that TFP has seen.
Onto the casting – TFP did help NYGASP try to broaden their reach, and the production she saw had Quynh-My Luu as Yum Yum.
TFP can see that Ms. Luu could just as easily go into Mabel from Pirates of Penzance, as do The Mikado – and that is the absolute point of inclusive casting.
The point – and TFP does have one -is that there are people out there, performers of color and various minority status, that should indeed be seen based on their talent, and not because there is rigorous adherence to ‘the way it was’.
The romance between Yum Yum and her Nanki Poo, played by Jesse Pimpinella, was authentic, youthful and delightful.
Caitlin Burke, who is of Asian descent, was properly terrifying as Katisha
and then absolutely hilarious once she and Adam B. Shapiro’s Koko decided upon their romance – the two of them absolutely ‘killed it’, and with Mr. Shapiro’s only nod to Japan being in his leather obi and accented trousers, it freed him to round out Koko in a majestic way.
Poo-Bah (Andy Herr), The Mikado (Cole Grissom), Pitti-Sing (Jessica Rose Futran), and Peep-Bo (Lauren Frankovich) also embraced their roles with gusto, freed from imagined chains of what it means to portray someone of another culture – and congrats to them all.
In point of fact, that is how TFP felt about this version of THE MIKADO, that it freed everyone from tired tropes and allowed those on stage and off to relax and enjoy the show.
“A Little List‘ has been delightfully rewritten to include references to Lin Manuel Miranda and Bravolebrities – fair game, as LMM has references to Pirates of Penzance in Hamilton, a G&S ‘quid pro quo” as it were…yes, that works too.
In short – this version of The Mikado by NYGASP is enjoyable.
TFP has said all along that The Mikado does not need to be rewritten to not offend people – it simply should be performed in a way that embraces inclusion, embraces multi-culturalism, because it if does not, the audience and the actors for this type of entertainment, which has entertained people since the 1880’s, will disappear.
If you do not believe TFP, believe Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.
You can perform the show in a variety of ways – take it out of Japan entirely but keep the text, you can change the setting and the text, or you can find a new way to keep it in Japan that works.
There are two ways to do this – do what NYGASP has done, and embrace the fantasy aspect of what Japan meant to Gilbert, add a prologue, and keep a diverse cast.
Or, hopefully sometime soon, have an All Asian Cast of The Mikado, deciding at the time whether or not to use traditional costumes and scenery of Japan.
Congratulations to NYGASP, particularly Producer David Wannen and Director David Auxier – you definitely could have told us all to go jump in a lake, and continued with the tiredness of orientalism, but you took a good look at a classic piece, and created a new vision that will ensure it goes forward to 2085.
Well done, well done.
Let’s all keep talking and moving forward America’s Arts Community – let’s be there for one another and create the world we want to live in.