NZ Opera's The Mikado features giggly girls but no geishas

Helen Medlyn as Katisha and Byron Coll as Ko-Ko

The Mikado by Gilbert & Sullivan
Directed by Stuart Maunder

ASB Waterfront Theatre until February 19
Then Wellington February 25–28, and Christchurch March 7-11

You see them occasionally on the streets of Auckland – the Harajuku-styled young Japanese girls with their sailor suits, very short skirts, knee-high socks, scarves and bouffant or dyed hair. Right now, there is a whole crowd of them on stage in New Zealand Opera’s Mikado. All pink, fluffy and giggly, a contemporary version of the tittering geishas of the traditional production of the operetta.

This Japanese mishmash of western style fashion is a counterpoint to the mish-mash view of Japanese culture that Gilbert & Sullivan created. 

The story of The Mikado revolves around Nanki-Poo, who has banished himself from the little town of Titipu because he has fallen in love with Yum-Yum who is engaged to her guardian, the tailor Ko-Ko.

When Nanki-Poo hears that Ko-Ko has been condemned to death for flirting, he returns to Titipu, only to learn that Ko-Ko has been promoted to the post of Lord High Executioner in a bureaucratic move to reduce the number of executions.

The Mikado, however, notices the lack of executions in Titipu and insists on the town having one. The now suicidal Nanki-Poo is offered one month of luxurious living by Ko–Ko at the end of which he will lose his head.

Nanki-Poo agrees on the condition that he be married to Yum-Yum so he can spend his last month in wedded bliss. But just as the wedding celebration begins, a law is discovered, much to Yum-Yum's distress, which decrees that a condemned man's wife must be buried alive.

Like many of the opera of the late 19th century set in foreign or exotic locations, these were always a façade for the dramatists’ and composers more local interests. WS Gilbert's satire may appear to be aimed at the machinations of the Japanese court but they were more applicable to the bureaucrats of Whitehall and they are still relevant today to the inhabitants of the Beehive.

Stuart Maunders' stylish production sets the operetta in contemporary times and it works well, highlighting the continued relevance of Gilbert & Sullivan. They were not just clever political satirists, they were also shrewd observers of human foibles and social behaviour.

The cast are uniformly witty, frivolous and audacious, with a few outstanding performances, notably the Justin Trudeau lookalike Jonathan Abernethy playing Nanki-Poo and Byron Coll, the annoying rugby supporter in the TV ad who hassles Richie McCaw taking on the role of Ko-Ko, The Lord High Executioner.

As Nanki-Poo, who is the only “normal” person in the tale, Abernethy has a fine, heroic voice and a smooth acting style. His reactions and emotions are those of the audience – mostly bewilderment at the strange goings on in Titipu.

Bryan Coll arrives on stage with a Japanese version of a burqa, spent most of the time on stage dressed as clown and his performance was a mixture of a circus clown and vaudeville act. He carried off his “I’ve got a Little List” superbly, updating it with annoying people who talk to you on the plane, people and their cell phones and of course Donald Trump.

James Clayton as the Mikado did a superb job in his railing against stupidity in the song A More Humane Mikado, singing about making the punishment fit the crime.

Helen Medlyn provided a scintillating performance as Katisha, the daughter-in-law elect who looked like the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz

While Amelia Berry’s performance as Yum-Yum was animated and charming, it was Anna Dowsley's Pitti-Sing who was the stand-out performer with a sophisticated display of acting and singing. Her clear articulation of the words showed what a good voice can achieve where others were not so skilled.

It was a pity that there were no surtitles. Even productions of English language operas require them as there are always singers who lack the clarity of diction required and especially given the fast-paced vocal gymnastics of Gilbert and Sullivan. They should have learnt from last year's  production of Nixon in China when most audience members were unable to comprehend the narrative line without the help  of surtitles.

The small APO orchestra under Isaac Hayward, which was almost on stage and in full view of the audience, gave a sparkling performance while the set designs and costumes of Simone Romaniuk provide a vibrant environment for the action. Particularly successful was the Hello Kitty-style pink set and costumes of Act II.


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