By Robert Croan
The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players returned to Broward Center’s Au-Rene Theater on March 12 with a pleasant but uneven performance of The Mikado.
It was more polished than the company’s 2020 touring performance of The Pirates of Penzance, but a reminder that South Florida currently lacks (and needs) a resident Savoyard company of our own.
NYGASP (the company’s own acronym) was founded in 1974 and is still conducted by its initial leader, Albert Bergeret. On the basis of these touring productions, the troupe is a curious mixture of accomplished professionalism and embarrassing amateurism.
On the positive side is the enthusiasm and crisp ensemble work of the singers and instrumentalists. These artists have worked together and achieved solid rapport in their interactions, with each other and between stage and pit.
The chorus of 14 was particularly impressive, vocalizing with tight-knit singularity while acting each as an individual persona. Some of the lead singers were of operatic quality — a necessity for most of the roles, barring the patter singers. Also laudable was the colorful set by Anshuman Bhatia, suggesting a mythical Japan fitting the never-never land of this work’s creators.
Not all the principals were of equal capacity, however, and the staging by director-choreographer David Auxier-Loyola ranged from traditional G&S movements to slapstick and vaudeville antics that just didn’t work. Musically, although Bergeret kept his forces together with admirable discipline, his tempos leaned toward the sluggish, lacking sparkle and strength of the musical accent.
Adding to the lethargy was an superfluous spoken prologue depicting the authors and original impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte thinking up The Mikado as a dream of writer Gilbert. This added nothing to understanding of the scenario, but combined with the slow tempos, extended the total event to upwards of three hours.
Another problem was lack of intelligibility in the Au-Rene’s sizable spaces. The amplification system made things louder but not necessarily clearer. This was crippling, as the G&S comic operas depend on Gilbert’s puns and wordplay to make their point. Sullivan’s scores are no less brilliant, and his parody of 19th-century serious opera can be effective on its own. G&S is often attended by aficionados who know the material by heart, but some in the local audience, unfamiliar with the genre, were heard during Intermission, complaining that they didn’t get what this is all about.
Most of us recognize Arthur Sullivan’s infectious tunes, along with quotes from William S. Gilbert’s lyrics such as “I’ve got a little list” and “Let the punishment fit the crime,” but the original libretto contains racist elements (against Asians and Africans, including at least one use of the N-word) that are unacceptable today. Premiered in London in 1885, The Mikado was a satire of the British nobility and Parliament, and those elements were (unfortunately) part of Victorian English culture.
The worst slurs, occurring in the patter songs of the title character and the Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko, are now inevitably adjusted or trimmed out, and it’s a tradition to add or substitute topical contemporary political references. In addition to giving the songs a timeline, this can avoid or avert most of the offensive lines.
The present staging addressed the issue not only by textual changes, but by Westernizing some of the costumes — aptly designed by Quinto Ott — while retaining the Eastern setting and Victorian timeline. There was nothing remotely offensive here. As for those wonderful patter songs, David Macaluso delivered Ko-Ko’s “As someday it may happen that a victim must be found” with expert attention to detail. His singing voice is thin and not true to pitch, but he did a lot with enunciation and verbal coloration — when not sabotaged by the acoustics of the venue. Moreover, he has a splendid stage persona, using his diminutive stature to advantage to stand out from the others and take focus.
The title character has a smaller role — he doesn’t appear until the middle of Act 2 — but he enters with a great song. David Wannen inhabited the part with authority, projecting his catalog of punishments with ghoulish relish, though his voice was strained in the music’s higher reaches. By contrast, Matthew Wages, as Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else (except for Executioner) combined seasoned acting skills with a resonant and well-produced bass-baritone sound.
Every G&S show requires a comic contralto of grand volume and physical proportions to match. Angela Christine Smith, who excelled in the company’s previous Pirates, filled all the requirements, with a booming Wagnerian voice to equal her dominating physical attributes. As the ingenue Yum-Yum, soprano Rebecca L. Hargrove matched her good looks with superb singing and a winning personality.
Her hero, Nanki-Poo in the person of tenor John Charles McLaughlin, was not up to the role’s vocal demands, crooning “A wand’ring minstrel I” like a pop singer and faking the highest notes, though he made a handsome and credible partner to Hargrove’s appealing heroine. In smaller parts, Amy Maude Helfer impressed with a creamy mezzo sound as Pitti-Sing, while Auxier-Loyola took on a third assignment, this time on stage, as Pish-Tush — who has the first solo, which he delivered quite creditably.