Cabrillo College Theatre Arts Department taps zeitgeist with revised opera classic
Though it is tempting to compare the comedy of “The Mikada”—Kathryn Adkins’ lissome, literate, lavishly daffy redesign of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s “The Mikado”—to that of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, it would be a stretch of both the truth and the production’s very intention to do so.
For starters, the opera, presented by Cabrillo College Theatre Arts Department, is frillier and more good-natured than anything from the Comedy Central school of satire, despite its scattering of sharp-tongued verbal witticisms and morally topsy-turvy society. But for all its parodic 21st century nudges, it’s also an authentic adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular opera—arguably the most popular opera ever written—faithful in spirit, and avoiding the trap of off-putting smugness.
Pundits of political and popular culture in their day, Gilbert and Sullivan first staged “The Mikado” in 1885, when Queen Victoria held the throne and the heir apparent was Prince Edward. While “The Mikado” poked fun at the monarchy and class distinctions, “The Mikada” skewers the upper one-percent and present-day economic disparity.
Framed by the fascination with Japanese culture that characterized the period in which it was written, the story unfolds in the mythical land of Napaj, a strange mélange of multiple cultures and time periods. Following a cast of ridiculously named characters, the opera focuses on the somewhat passive-aggressive showdown between Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko (also known as The Lord High Executioner) for the love of Yum-Yum.
The title change is due to the casting of a female in the title role, who incidentally does not have as much stage time as you might expect. When The Mikada is on stage, however, she is played by Lizz Hodgin Anderson, and often accompanied by a wonderfully spry Mindy Pedlar as Katisha. Meanwhile, Nanki-Poo (Carl Dawson) is ostensibly the audience’s primary rooting interest, as he and Ko-Ko (David Jackson) participate in a love triangle with Yum-Yum (Suzanne Wood, gifted with a crisp alto). Yum-Yum is typically in the company of Pitti-Sing (Teagan Trautwein) and Peep-Bo (Janie Dusenberry). Rounding out the primary cast is Mike Stark as Poo-Bah and Tyler Perez as Pish-Tush.
It is worth mentioning all of the main players because they happen to be at their best in tandem, filling in the gaps of one another’s voice, accompanied by instrumental support under the musical direction of Don Adkins. As a whole, they have a nifty penchant for saving the best for last, closing each of the two acts with a respective peak, “With Aspect Stern and Gloomy Stride” and “For He’s Gone and Married Yum-Yum.”
The production’s first half strikes the occasional false note—not of the literal sort, but rather changes in dialogue or lyrics; easy targets such as Wall Street and Margaret Thatcher are name-checked, not to mention a handful of too-cute meta asides.
These are reasonably clever quips, ones that gently hint at a contemporary perspective. But even as they get the requisite chuckles, this blithe interruption of 21st century irony sets up prickling concerns that Adkins is content to merely preach to the choir. While there is nothing inherently wrong in doing so, the satire comes across rather baldly. Though “The Mikada” openly intends to address current affairs, the original text does the majority of the allegorical legwork—meanwhile, the changes to said text feel a bit like overkill.
While such concerns linger, they are happily alleviated by an exquisitely choreographed interlude that involves the majority of the cast wielding thundersticks like swords, clashing against each other in perfect rhythm. Largely defying explanation, it’s a knockout sequence in isolation. More crucially, however, it sets up the fanciful indicator and heightened visual fancy that are to be the cornerstones of this adaptation; even when it shifts into frenetic comic riffing, “The Mikada” hangs on to its je ne sais quoi.
The production’s panoply of culture-clashing motifs, its bright multihued palette, and its fetish for showy hair and hats are splashed liberally across Skip Epperson’s set design, which articulates the narrative’s mythical setting with open, theatrical economy. And Maria Crush’s diverse costumes—touching on everything from Commedia dell’Arte burlesque to gilded Orientalism—is creative within the limited budget of a collegiate production.
With so much visual noise, it is a relief that the cast should be so comfortable with the frivolous farce that makes up much of the narrative, its unapologetic silliness cresting with a potentially catastrophic, but finally endearing absurdism. Even if “The Mikada” is inconsistent when it comes to selling irony—a challenge in any work of satire—thankfully it does not cheapen dramatic sincerity.
The Mikada runs from April 21-May 6, at Cabrillo College Crocker Theater, 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos. Tickets are $23/General, $21/Students & Seniors, $18/With Activity Card, $13/Children under 10. For more information, call 479-6154, or visit cabrillovapa.com.