With laughing song" and "ringing cheer," Gilbert and Sullivan's greatest operetta, The Mikado, took London by storm in 1885.
Today, 120 years after "a most brilliant house" at the Savoy Theatre gave the first performance a "tremendous reception" (as Sullivan wrote in his diary), the work remains widely prized nearly everywhere for its wordplay, tunefulness and just plain fun.
The Young Victorian Theatre Company celebrates its 35th anniversary this month, as it celebrated its 30th, with a production of The Mikado, opening tonight at the Bryn Mawr School.
The company started as a high school student program with a $10,000 budget. Under general manager Brian S. Goodman for 28 seasons, the troupe has grown into a professional operation that spends $150,000 on its annual summer celebration of Gilbert and Sullivan's ingenuity.
Veteran G & S aficionados will welcome the return of The Mikado; those not yet hooked on the team's output (hard to believe, but there really are such sorry souls) should find this opportunity an ideal introduction.
The plot, set in the town of Titipu, is pure whimsy. The characters' names alone reinforce that - Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum, lovers who are thwarted by crazy laws (flirting can lead to beheading for the man, burial alive for the woman); Ko-Ko, Lord High Executioner of Titipu; Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else; Pish-Tush, a nobleman; Peep-Bo and Pitti-Sing (Yum-Yum's sisters); etc.
As is the case with all of the G & S operettas, a certain amount of the dialogue and lyrics will be obscure to most modern listeners. There are references to British things that even some Brits might not know about today, such as "Parliamentary trains" (named for government regulations applied to them).
But the major satirical targets in librettist W. S. Gilbert's sights - Victorian English life and politics, disguised in Japanese trappings - haven't lost much of their sting. Don't we still have our share of "apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind" or "society sinners who chatter and bleat and bore"? They're all delectably skewered here.
Legend has it that a little accident led to the creation of The Mikado - a Japanese ceremonial sword hanging on the wall of Gilbert's study suddenly fell to the floor one day, triggering in him the inspiration for an operetta that takes place in Japan.
More likely, the author merely decided to capitalize on a London craze for things Japanese, fueled by a crowd-drawing exhibition about daily life in Japan, complete with recreations of village streets and shops.
As one London newspaper put it, "The quaint art of a strange people, who are getting rid of their national characteristics as fast as they can, is receiving from us that form of homage which the proverb describes as `the sincerest form of flattery.'"
Gilbert cleverly exploited this public interest, and insisted on accuracy and beauty of costumes to give the premiere of The Mikado a richly exotic look.
Composer Arthur Sullivan avoided cheesy imitations of Japanese music but did borrow some authentic tunes from Japan to enhance a scene or two. The rest of the score is cut from the same clever cloth that produced H.M.S. Pianafore and The Pirates of Penzance.
In an interview with an American paper around the time The Mikado hit Broadway in 1885, Sullivan said this about Gilbert: "Have you noticed what an extraordinary polish there is to his versification? There is never a weak syllable. ... He has a wonderful gift, too, of making rhythms, and it bothers me sometimes to make corresponding rhythms in music."
But Sullivan had no discernible trouble producing terrific rhythmic vitality in The Mikado's score, which also boasts some of his most endearing melodic lines and most colorful orchestration.
The charms of The Mikado haven't faded a bit over the decades. The humorous numbers still sparkle; the ballads still caress the ear ("The Moon and I," in particular, has an exceptionally haunting beauty that many an opera composer would envy).
In short, it's a masterpiece of the musical stage. And, to borrow a line from "the gentlemen of Japan" in the opening scene, "You're wrong if you think it ain't."
The Young Victorian Theatre Company's production of The Mikado will be directed by Roger Brunyate, artistic director of the Peabody Opera Theatre, and conducted by J. Ernest Green, music director of the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra and the Annapolis Chorale. The cast includes Troy Clark as Ko-Ko, Samuel Hepler as Pooh-Bah, Leah V. Inger as Yum-Yum and John Artz as Nanki-Poo.
"The Mikado" will be performed at Centennial Hall, Bryn Mawr School, 109 W. Melrose Ave., Roland Park, at 8 tonight and tomorrow, 11 a.m. (abridged for children) and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. July 14-16, and 3 p.m. July 17. Tickets are $35; $15 for Saturday children's matinee. Call 410-323-3077, or go to www.yvtc.org.
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