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N.Y.’s Gilbert & Sullivan troupe updates classics

TALK ABOUT dusting off, updating but still doing justice to a classic.

That’s what the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players have been doing in Gotham and beyond for 32 years.

Right now they’ve brought the cream of the G&S repertoire to midtown Manhattan’s City Center, where they’re regaling audiences with “The Mikado,” “HMS Pinafore” and an evening of “G&S a la Carte” — a play on the original impresario who produced 19th century operettas, Richard D’Oyly Carte.

And they’re doing it with a deft combination of topicality and timelessness, which seems to work for both longtime fans of light opera and newer converts to the genre.

A number of the children in the audience for the “Mikado” on Jan. 8 reveled in the antics of an oversized Harvey Fierstein-like Pooh-Bah (yes, that is where we get the word) as he tries to sit cross-legged or of the lead character Ko-Ko as he tries to lug his outsized executioner’s ax across the stage.

For anyone tired of the viciousness of current politics or the grossness of social discourse, hearing G&S take on everything from overblown nationalism to bureaucratic idiocy to class rigidity is a tonic. What witty sendups and pungent putdowns, but with what absence of malice!

EARLIER THIS WEEK I caught the company’s deliciously sly “Mikado,” which is dotted with delightful ditties like “Willow, Titwillow” and satiric ones like “A More Humane Mikado.” It also featured colorful “Japan-esy” costumes, and diverting choreography with fans and parasols. What the performance occasionally lacked in crispness of diction it made up for in exuberance.

For most of the players, and inarguably for the three principal G&S movers-and-shakers — artistic director-conductor Albert Bergeret, his wife Gail Wofford and their longtime colleague Jan Holland — every performance is a labor of love.

One of the leitmotivs of “The Mikado” is lists — which in turns makes for easy insertion of current references to sharpen the wit and heighten the fun of it all.

Thus, Ko-Ko’s list of those he might select to be beheaded includes that “bimbo Hilton hotel heiress” and Tom Delay.

Rarely has Pooh-Bah, the lord high commissioner of just about everything (who will take on any task as long as he is “insulted” with a large enough bribe), seemed so, well, a propos.

“We let the actors and singers come up with their own references,” Bergeret said, ” explaining that William S. Gilbert, back in the 1880s, did the same thing. “He was a control freak, changing and updating the lyrics for almost every performance. It’s nothing new really. Performing only makes sense if we’re communicating to the audience of today.”

LIKE MOST art-oriented non-profits NYGASP still operates by the seat of its pants, living mostly off its ticket sales and several thousand dollars now and again from the N.Y. State Council of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. (Company headquarters is still an unadorned basement room in a Greek orthodox church on the Upper West Side.)

Its indefatigable trio of founding members live and breathe the company, even if life gets no easier. A three-week run at the City Center last year coincided with fierce snowstorms, and hence meant a shortfall in the year’s revenues. (The run at City Center this go-round is only two weeks and the repertoire is limited to the most widely known works.)

Tours to other cities have been largely limited to Florida and the Midwest. Bergeret says he’d love to do a stint in Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles, though in the latter two there are less high-profile Gilbert & Sullivan troupes to take into account.

“We started in 1974 with $35, doing block parties and such-like, and borrowing everything from an electric piano to a xerox machine. (His wife learned to design costumes; Holland is a production manager and occasionally sings.) We’re now a $1.5 million operation and we get to draw upon some fabulous talents in and around New York,” Bergeret exudes.

He talks in fact a mile-a-minute — you almost expect him to break into song. And in fact he often does, performing madrigals with a smaller entity within the players called the Wand’ring Minstrels.

On Bergeret’s own wish list is the hope that finances will eventually allow the company to hire performers fulltime for an extended three to six-month period. “That would allow us to build to the next level in performance,” he says wistfully. (Fortunately, on the labor front, the orchestra recently agreed a three-year contract with Bergeret; the contract with the performers has 18 months to run.)

And the company can depend on loyalists who return year after year in one role or another as well as talented newcomers, who no doubt feel that the Players can provide a less daunting initiation into the fierce musical fray of the Big Apple. Plus they have fun.

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