Sassy, satirical and sensitive ‘Mikado’ takes stage

Debora Van Brenk//Western News

The Mikado, performed by Opera at Western, features "an odd and silly hybrid of the Land of the Rising Sun and the Maple Leaf," its director says. Some of its cast ham it up backstage: Robert Hutson (front, with trombone) as Nanki-Poo; and (from left to right) Camila Montefusco as Katisha, Anne Jean as Yum-Yum and Donavon Trice as Ko-Ko.

Fun. Funny. More than a bit satirical. That’s how the director of The Mikado describes his adaptation of the iconic Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera, which hits the Opera at Western stage for five performances starting next week.

In this adaptation that eschews the 19th-century caricatures that have raised both eyebrows and hackles in recent years, audiences at Western can expect to hear references to people and places that hit closer to home.

“As the director and adaptor of this piece, or any piece, my challenge is to go back to the original, back to the source material and go after the point of the whole enterprise,” said stage director Michael Cavanagh, noting the final piece holds true to the British composers’ intent to skewer society through sass and song.

“We understand that what they were really doing was poking fun at themselves, these Brits. So we’re going to poke fun at ourselves, Londoners, Ontarians, Canadians. We’re going to take news of our day and our time and our place and allow us this comic distance by presenting it in this highly fictionalized, stylized and ludicrous world.”

The Mikado is set in a version of Japan, with a storyline that includes nobility, unrequited love, threatened beheadings, bizarre twists of fate and circumstance, and a happily-ever-after ending.

But it’s less about Japan or even a plot than it is a gently mocking commentary about social mores, Cavanagh said.

“The Brits just love, in equal parts, being obsequious to their monarchies and their hierarchy and at the same time tweaking the noses of those who take it all too seriously. It’s an interesting dichotomy for them.”

As directors have done since at least the second performance of The Mikado in 1885, Cavanagh adapted the script to hit current events and talking points, while remaining faithful to the point of the performance.

“Our job is to understand our audience and where we can be cheeky and where it’s really not appropriate. The audience will discover they’ll have a really good time and understand they’re in good satirical hands.”

A prime example, and one of the most eagerly anticipated in any staging of The Mikado, are the lyrics of I’ve Got a Little List, which every company changes to fit their time and place.

While Cavanagh doesn’t guarantee an offence-free afternoon or evening, “I rewrote this thing and I’ve reread it 1,000 times and we’ve rehearsed it 100 times. I don’t really want to give serious offence to anybody, ever. I don’t want anyone to feel they’re being singled out, so I don’t want people to think it’s an insult comedy at all. We poke gentle fun at ourselves.”

But will there still be kimonos and a Japanese-like setting?

“Sorta-kinda. We’re calling this an odd and silly hybrid of the Land of the Rising Sun and the Maple Leaf. We go meta with the idea that this is a mythologized version of somebody’s idea of a filtered concept of what could be in a parallel universe – something to be known as Japan. That also gives you a hint of what approach we’re going to take – cheeky, verbose and, in its own way, sensitive.”

In a note to auditioners last fall, he said the libretto as originally written included “a shocking level of cultural insensitivity, bizarre references to outdated social customs, baffling ‘jokes’ about obtuse aspects of 19th-century British politics, and even the casual usage – more than once – of a horrendous racial slur.”

But, he said, “Please rest assured that our show will retain all of the fun, whimsy and wicked satire of the original, while remaining appropriate to and for every single one of us.”

Like a funhouse mirror with endless reflections, the audience will know that the cast knows they’re aware of audience sensitivities about race, gender and culture, he said.

“Because The Mikado heads so close to the cultural-appropriation sun – you can’t fly too close or your wings melt and down you go –that’s what makes it really interesting and really valuable and extra topical for this day and age.

“We understand we’re in a show; we understand we’re in a theatre; we understand that we are putting on this show that may not be entirely appropriate. So let’s talk about it being entirely inappropriate or not.”

The Mikado was Gilbert & Sullivan’s most acclaimed piece, with some of the most memorable tunes of the time. “It was an instant success, and not because of its so-called Japanese setting. It was successful because it skewered everybody in its audience better than anyone had ever seen.”

Auditions began in September, rehearsals soon accelerated to three to four times a week and now take place daily.

He praised the professionalism and enthusiasm of the cast and crew, all Western students. In addition to dozens of people working behind the scenes, the performance features nine named characters, 16 in the chorus and an orchestra, “which makes for a big noise, a big beautiful sound, lots of fun and entertainment.

“It is – at the beginning, middle and end – an entertainment.”

IF YOU GO

Opera at Western present The Mikado

Five public performances: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 31; 2 p.m. Feb 1; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7; 2 p.m. Feb. 8; 2 p.m. Feb. 9, all in the Paul Davenport Theatre, Talbot College.

(*Private performance Feb. 2 for faculty/staff/families)

Tickets: $30 ($20 for students)/$35 cash (or $25 cash for students) at the door, if available. Purchase advance tickets via the Grand Theatre Box Office online, in person or by phone at 519-672-8800.