Arts & Culture » Theater

Discovering Japan

Opera Theatre opens 2007 with an outrageous updating of a Gilbert & Sullivan classic.


Stop me if you've heard this one before. A sumo wrestler, an Elvis impersonator, a dozen Japanese "salarymen" talking on cell phones, some stagehands dressed as ninjas, a guy in a Pokémon suit and Godzilla walk into a bar.

Actually they walk into an operetta. They all appear in the hilariously manic opening offering of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' 31st season, The Mikado.

W.S. Gilbert is the greatest operetta librettist and lyricist of all time. He was Britain's Mark Twain, a storyteller who deflated the pretensions of Victorian England. His social-climbing, self-important partner, Arthur Sullivan, composer of Onward Christian Soldiers, was the kind of person Gilbert wrote about. For the most part, they couldn't stand each other. It's a good thing they both needed the money, because their only real success came with each other, and together they were the finest creative team in the history of English theater.

Gilbert's plot takes an absurd situation and develops it with impeccably demented logic. Nanki-Poo, son of the Mikado (Emperor of Japan), flees the imperial court to escape marrying Katisha, a hag. Disguised as a traveling musician, he falls in love with Yum-Yum, the adolescent ward of Ko-Ko, a lecherous tailor in the town of Titipu. Yum-Yum is already betrothed to Ko-Ko. The Mikado decrees that all who flirt publicly are to be beheaded. The town fathers of Titipu don't want to execute anybody, so they appoint Ko-Ko, the first man convicted under the new anti-flirting law, to be Lord High Executioner. He can't execute anyone until he's cut his own head off, which would not only be impossible but a violation of the law against suicide. Ko-Ko hates violence, but he'd better behead someone before the imminent visit of the Mikado, who's expecting an execution.

Unwilling to serve with a lowly tradesman — whom they appointed — the elders' pride compels them to resign their offices, all of which the officious Pooh-Bah assumes as Lord High Everything Else. But Pooh-Bah's conflicted. As Private Secretary he could authorize a lavish wedding for Ko-Ko and Yum-Yum, which as Chancellor of the Exchequer he can't permit, although as Paymaster General he could fix the books, but then as Lord High Auditor he'd discover the fraud, as Archbishop he'd denounce it and as First Commissioner of Police arrest himself.

The original production of The Mikado was designed to cash in on the huge interest in all things Japanese that was sweeping England in 1885. Opera Theatre stage director Nick Canty has upped the ante by modernizing the plot.

Canty's Nanki-Poo is an Elvis impersonator; Yum-Yum is a wild-haired, sailor-suited, anime-inspired schoolgirl. The salarymen, sumo wrestler and Pokémon are in the chorus. The stagehands really are dressed as ninjas. Godzilla crushes a pagoda. And Titipu has morphed into Harajuku, the Carnaby Street of modern Asia.

The update works. The production flies on an unintrusive updating of Gilbert's torrent of hilariously punny lyrics and a couple of excellent performances. Patrick Miller is smooth as Nanki-Poo, and Katherine Jolly twitters and chirps Yum-Yum with schoolgirl glee. But Matt Boehler as Poo-Bah and Myrna Paris as Katisha steal the show.

The lanky and angular Boehler is a perfectly fey political pimp, with a velvet bass that reeks of corruption and noblesse oblige. Paris' Katisha, done up to look like Rodney Dangerfield in geisha drag with makeup by Gene Simmons, may be wig and makeup designer Tom Watson's most outrageous creation in his 26 years of Opera Theatre productions. She's a superb actress whose face, fingers and form are a comedic weapon of significant proportions.

This modern Mikado makes for an engaging evening for opera buffs and newcomers alike. It's breezy entertainment — kid-friendly, even — exactly what operetta was meant to be.

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