Friday, March 22, 2019

GSVLOC Modernizes "The Mikado"

Are you familiar with Rick Shiomi? 

Photo courtesy of GSVLOC

If not, what rock have you been hiding under!

One of the legendary luminaries of the #tctheater scene, Rick founded Mu Performing Arts (one of my favorite local companies), Full Circle Theater (another favorite local company!), and has been pitching in at theaters around the Twin Cities to consult and produce various shows.

One of the most interesting things about Rick, to me, is that while firmly (and correctly) in the camp of increasing on-stage diversity, he is not someone who always agrees we should throw out racist old shows. In the first ever Twin Cities Theater Blogger Continuing Conversation series, which was focused on race (and unfortunately was the only one our group never recorded - such a shame!), Rick spoke eloquently and at length about the possibility of rewriting such scripts to be more historically accurate, not racist, and still retain the spirit of the original that audiences have admired for generations. The case study he presented at that time was The King and I - did you know that the real-life Anna Leonoens was actually bi-racial, completely changing the context of that musical in a good re-write?! - but it turns out that's not the only show he has thoughts about.

The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company (GSVLOC), which produces one Gilbert & Sullivan show every year, chose The Mikado as their show for 2019. If you are not familiar, the show goes like this: Franki-Poo, the crown prince, has run away from home (and Katy Shaw, the woman who has betrothed herself to him), in order to regain freedom of choice and find true love. He meets and falls in love with Tum Tum, the beautiful young ward - and fiancee - of the creepy (but cunning) Co Co. Co Co is kept in power by the Lord High Everything Else, the man who singlehandedly holds all offices in this imaginary English city called Ti-Tea-Pu. When the King of England sends word he will visit, he also sends word that Ti-Tea-Pu is in need of holding an execution. The chosen subject is none other than the king's son-in-disguise Franki-Poo, who is willing to die from pining after his lost love; but there's a catch. Tum Tum doesn't actually want to marry Co Co, instead finding a way to marry Franki-Poo; and the leaders of Ti-Tea-Pu all learn Franki-Poo is the king's son and can't be killed anyway. Typical Gilbert & Sullivan shenanigans ensue, and everything turns up roses by the end.

Photo courtesy of GSVLOC

The historic issue with The Mikado is that Gilbert & Sullivan wrote it to be a parody of England, and it became an enormously successful one - but only because it was set in Japan. The Mikado is easily the best selling Gilbert & Sullivan show in history, while also being historically performed in yellow face with abounding racial stereotypes about Japanese people. Throw in a few n-words and other racial stereotypes on top of it, and the show becomes atomically problematic. See the trouble?

So along comes Rick Shiomi at the request of GSVLOC, who not only rewrote the show to remove those harmful stereotypes, but delightfully modernized it to reflect today's American politics and cultural references. The effect is a show you would never know was re-written, that is infinitely easier for an audience to understand and relate to, and in my humble opinion the most Gilbert & Sullivan-y way to treat such a script to begin with - after all, every one of these shows was originally written as a cultural commentary before things like Saturday Night Live or Key & Peele existed, so shouldn't contemporary productions reflect current events as well?

I first discovered GSVLOC last year, which is a shame because I generally love Gilbert & Sullivan humor and they are a terrifically talented group. The ensemble sounds gorgeous every chance they get to assemble, and I found myself often wishing there were more full-ensemble numbers, a rarity for me in a show that clocks nearly three hours. All of these leads are charismatic, but I especially enjoyed Maggie Matejcek as a sly Tum Tum; Anthony Rohr as a love-stricken Franki-Poo; Alex Kolyszko as Lord High Everything Else (and the winner for Man Having Most Fun On Stage at my performance); and Lara Trujillo as a spectacularly devious Katy Shaw. I could have watched Trujillo alone all night, and I really hope I encounter her in future productions.

Photo courtesy of GSVLOC

With so many people on stage and involved in the musical aspects of The Mikado (at least 50 between the singers and pit orchestra), the production design is relatively straightforward - which is not a bad thing. The static set by Larry Rostad is painted with romantic technicolor tones reminiscent of an Old Hollywood watercolor and Edwardian English style. The costumes, by Barb Portinga, are similarly grounded and effective. The music direction, by Randal Buikema, is gorgeous and the supporting orchestra does a beautiful job of pacing the music. And the overall stage direction by Rick Shiomi - much like his inspired script re-writes - keeps this show feeling fresh, young, and engaging, an experience which I greatly appreciated.

I am all about advocating for new work to be written and produced that is inclusive and modern and not-problematic; but I also recognize that there are shows that have been beloved for other reasons, and that companies still want to produce them. By bringing in a visionary like Rick Shiomi to move The Mikado into the modern era, GSVLOC has found a way to have their cake and eat it too. They clearly enjoy working with this new script and perform the music with full conviction. It's a really fun experience with all sorts of hidden gems that will delight anyone who follows the news every night, and I think this refreshed version of The Mikado is a much more accessible version of the show than you might assume at first glance. GSVLOC generally only does a show or two a year, so now is your chance to catch them before The Mikado is gone; click here for more information and to buy tickets before the show closes on April 7.

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