Editor’s note: Did I make the right decision in pulling this review last night? I don’t know. I really don’t know. And I know that whatever actions I take going forward are going to anger someone. But, for better or worse, this event has become a catalyst for a much-needed conversation about race and representation. It’s a conversation that is happening all over America and a conversation in which the theater community should take a leadership role. After waking up to a firestorm of opinions – some praising and some lambasting the decision to pull the review – I spent the day feeling like the world’s worst editor. And maybe I am. So be it.
But since we are talking, let’s keep this conversation going. I agree that a conversation with this much passion behind it can only happen transparently if everyone can see the review that started the debate. For that reason, and in the hopes that people of all backgrounds and points of view will gather here for civil dialogue, I am putting the review back up beneath this preface.
When I realized last night that our review had angered members of the Asian Pacific American community (and others), I decided to stand by the people who felt wronged by it, to make a statement that said “I hear you. Your perspective matters.” And I still feel that way. But I also hope this can be a learning moment for all of us.
I ask everyone to consider this when reading the review: Your reaction to it, and whether or not you find it offensive, is influenced by everything that has brought you to this point in your life. Your race, your upbringing, the degree to which you have been allowed to belong or been pushed to the sidelines, all of that informs how you will interpret this review and how you interpret a show like The Mikado.
So let’s talk. And let’s listen.
By Bill Kamberger
Full disclosure: I love The Mikado. I sang in the chorus of the Young Victorian Theatre Company’s 1979 production, a publicity photo from which is being used to advertise their current mounting of this 1885 operetta, which is probably Gilbert and Sullivan’s most masterful and enduringly popular work. And as the Norton Library edition of Gilbert’s libretti notes, that also makes this show the finest achievement in English-language theater in the century between Sheridan and Wilde.
Nevertheless, controversy has dogged The Mikado from the beginning. Fearing a comic portrayal of Japan would offend a visiting Japanese prince, the British government banned all London presentations of the work, forcing the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company to transfer its original production to Sheffield.
A Tokyo journalist, K. Sugimura, scoped out a performance, reporting, “I came to Sheffield expecting to discover real insults to my countrymen. I find bright music and much fun, but I could not find the insults…The English people, in withdrawing this play lest Japan should be offended, are crediting my country with needless readiness to take offense.”
A lot has changed since 1885, much of it undoubtedly for the better. Concepts like “cultural appropriation” have entered the public consciousness, and The Mikado, being still one of the best-known examples of a Western comedy set in Japan, has borne the brunt of the criticism.
Just last week, Baltimore’s own The Bad Oracle dismissed this operetta as a “dated piece of trash that has no place on the stage.” More thoughtfully but no less indignantly, comedian and activist Sean Miura has asserted, “Lampooning white aristocracy by using Japan as a vessel does not justify the constant belittlement of my ancestors.”
Mr. Miura touches on a point that The Mikado’s defenders feel is central to their case: the operetta is not really about Japan at all, but about Victorian Britain and its political, social, and sexual foibles. Indeed, the logo for the Young Vic’s production shows Gilbert and Sullivan standing beside a traditional Japanese torii that claims to lead to “the Town of Titipu,” the operetta’s ostensible setting, but which actually opens onto Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament – arguably the wittiest sight gag in this show, as well as a guide on how to approach this work that more companies would do well to heed.
But is The Mikado, however inadvertently, still guilty of belittling people like Mr. Miura’s ancestors? It’s hard to argue otherwise, but that’s not the whole story: like any true satirist, Gilbert belittled everybody. He was, if anything, more a misanthrope than a racist – this show’s famous “Little List” song, which catalogs all the people deserving of a death sentence, concludes that none of us would be missed – yet even that is belied by some of his real-life actions.
This was the same man, after all, who died of a heart attack when, at 74, he dove into a lake to save a young woman who claimed to be drowning. In an irony that Gilbert probably would have found droll, the girl, Patricia Preece, not only survived but grew up to ruin the life of another British artistic genius, painter Stanley Spencer.
Despite all arguments to the contrary, it’s clear from the delighted reaction of the audience at the Young Vic that The Mikado isn’t going away any time soon. Pressure from critics like Mr. Miura has caused many theaters, including this one, to reconsider some of the more offensive elements in their interpretations of the show, and there is undeniably more work to be done in that regard. Calling for the operetta to be removed from the repertoire, however, is unlikely to advance that cause. Even people who don’t much care for a particular work are often spurred to dive to its rescue when censorship is floated.
And if I may interject another personal note, even before I was hired by DCMTA, my 83-year-old mother told me this show was the one she most wanted to attend this year. It’s a request I was determined to fulfill, for even if the naysayers don’t get their way, who knows how many more opportunities she will have to see it staged?
My mother happens to be a Pearl Harbor survivor, and so might be expected to hold a grudge against the Japanese, but neither malice nor political correctness appears to be on her radar. “I like the music” is her only response to such questions, and while some would say that’s privilege speaking, it also strikes me as wisdom. Among the many tragedies of racism, a tiny but not-insignificant one is that its victims have never been allowed, by either society or their own consciences, simply to enjoy the music.
Fortunately, the Young Vic can always be counted on to provide an excellent rendition of a Sullivan score, with the orchestra under the baton of Christopher M. Cicconi once again meriting the highest praise. What’s more, under the stage direction of Baltimore treasure James Harp, this Mikado honors both sides of Gilbert’s personality.
Even during his lifetime, the librettist had encouraged subsequent interpreters of his works to update his topical gibes to fit the crimes of the moment, and Harp complies by skewering everyone from Tide Pod-chewers to the current Commander-in-Chief – though not, thankfully, anti-Mikado protesters.
Yet for all its vitriol, not to mention some inserted ribaldry that would definitely not have amused Queen Victoria, this Mikado is essentially a tender-hearted affair that finds greater humanity in its characters than is usual, though certainly not more than is welcome.
Most spectacularly, mezzo Jenni Bank is a revelation as Katisha, a role too often played as a humorless harridan. Bank is sufficiently scary when required, but she’s also very funny, frequently in admirably subtle and unexpected ways; unfailingly dignified, even when placed in the most demeaning situations; and astonishingly sexy, thereby cluing us that the other characters’ revulsion at the sight of her may be merely sexist projection.
Better yet, Bank brings genuine pathos to the moments when Katisha reveals the loneliness that lurks behind her forbidding façade. It’s surely no coincidence that one of those moments, “The Hour of Gladness” in the Act I finale, inspires lighting designer Daniel Weissglass to create a mauve wash that is this production’s loveliest effect as if to make Katisha’s inner beauty visible.
Matching her every step of the way is Young Vic veteran Joshua Hughes as Ko-Ko, the feckless Lord High Executioner, a character who has been a comic gold mine for clowns from Groucho Marx to Eric Idle. Hughes proves comparably adept at mining the part for laughs, even as he manages to invest it with far more depth.
I chuckled every time he struggled to wield his oversized headsman’s ax, even though it was obviously only a light-weight facsimile, since his acting is credible enough to convince the prop itself of its heaviness. And he is no less persuasive at melting hearts in the beloved “Tit-Willow” song, not least because, unlike most actors who essay this role, Hughes is a bona fide operatic baritone.
Soprano Alissa Roca is downright delicious as Yum-Yum, imbuing the character’s cold-blooded vanity with a disarming warmth, but I was less taken with tenor John Kaneklides as her hapless lover, Nanki-Poo. Though his Chris Evans-like looks are fit to set hearts aflutter, his line readings tend to be ham-fisted, and his singing voice on opening weekend was already starting to fray.
Moreover, I’m not sure it’s appropriate to have Christopher Fotis, as Pish-Tush, brazenly flirt with him at every opportunity. Not only is flirting supposedly a capital offense in the world of this show, but sexual relations between men in Victoria’s England often had consequences that were not at all amusing, as Oscar Wilde would learn just ten years after The Mikado’s premiere.
Speaking of Pish-Tush, Gilbert gave him the following lyrics that may be the best response possible to this show’s persistent controversy: “And you’ll allow, as I expect, / That he was right to so object. / And I am right, and you are right, / And everything is quite correct!”
I can’t say everything is entirely correct at the Young Vic, but missing this production would unquestionably be wrong.
Running Time: Three hours, with one intermission
The Mikado plays through July 22, 2018, at the Young Victorian Theatre Company performing at Roland Park Country School – 5204 Roland Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.