The D’Oyly Carte Opera Co. looks to become a regular tenant once again at London’s glorious Savoy Theater, which was created for the company in 1881. Following a well-received “H.M.S. Pinafore” earlier in the year, the company has returned to the deco palace with a new production of “The Mikado,” perhaps Gilbert and Sullivan’s most beloved creation.
Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are a genre unto themselves. Their comic style is so distinctive they don’t comfortably accommodate much aesthetic tampering. (Not that D’Oyly Carte, the company officially entrusted with their oeuvre, is likely to try much funny stuff.) Director Ian Judge’s new production is clean-lined, brisk, bright and pleasantly traditional.
As have many prior productions, it chooses to make explicit the operetta’s overriding joke by outfitting its comically named courtiers in attire that makes clear their essential Englishness. Under a thin layer of Japanese lacquer, G&S were, of course, spoofing their own countrymen’s slavish affection for rules, rulers and regulations. Thus Tim Goodchild’s costumes are a merry mixture of exaggerated British and Japanese touches: The men sport big Victorian mustaches and crisp ties beneath a thin layer of Japanese ceremonial attire. The pretty maids flit on in kimonos and petticoats with tennis rackets in hand.
With the aid of cloth screens manipulated by the performers, Goodchild divides the stage into a series of layers that allows the action to unfold with appealing dispatch. A small drawback: The hustling on and off of various small scene-setting piece of furniture is a distraction in several numbers. A series of prosceniums are painted a bright, cloud-flecked blue and an electric red.
Among an able cast firmly drilled in the G&S style, Royce Mills’ impeccable performance as Pooh-Bah stands out in sharpest detail. He’s the picture of both imperious English pomp and shameless opportunism, as required, with his fluty tones adding their own comic perfume to Gilbert’s witty words. Richard Suart’s Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner put in the dismaying position of having to execute himself, could be more colorful, but he has a nicely pathetic dimension, and delivers “I’ve Got a Little List,” naturally embellished with references to dot.com-ists and the gas shortage, with gleeful charm.
The temporarily doomed young lovers Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum are played by Colin Lee and Jacqueline Varsey, who are both blessed with sizable and attractive voices. Lee also sings with an aptly sweet period ping. Their plight does not exactly touch our hearts here; Varsey presses the jokes too knowingly to be entirely appealing as an ingenue (and she’s done no favors by her mock-geisha makeup either, which should be toned down). Mezzo Deborah Hawksley is a commanding presence, both vocally and dramatically, as the spurned Katisha.
Lindsay Dolan’s choreography is on the uninspired side, with a pair of little-used tumblers seeming out of place, but the delightful score sounds splendid as supervised by D’Oyly Carte musical director John Owen Edwards.
Gilbert and Sullivan appear to go in and out of fashion in England with some regularity. A program note from D’Oyly Carte general manager Ian Martin, somewhat startling in its forthrightness, notes that the company’s recent success marks “a massive change in its fortunes” following a period when “all around us were prophets of doom predicting the company’s imminent closure.” Whether it is merely a natural cyclical change or inspiration from the success of Mike Leigh’s absolutely splendid “Topsy-Turvy,” the company seems to have captured the public’s affection again. This new “Mikado” will not disappoint G&S lovers, and should win over a few new converts, too.