A Gilbertian conundrum: what’s more distressing than a G&S comic operetta with a mirthless comedian holding up its center? A G&S comic operetta with two mirthless comedians — which is exactly what we get in the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ underwhelming production of “The Mikado.”
Louis Dall’Ava takes the stage as Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else, looking like a cross between Humpty-Dumpty and the Great Pumpkin. Jokes and asides are scattered to the wings. The staging has Dall’Ava — in what one hopes is a fat suit — flat on the floor, attempting to roll over and stand up with little success (and little effect). Albert Bergeret, the music, stage and company artistic director, apparently likes this business so much that he has Dall’Ava repeat it in the second act.
David Macaluso is considerably stronger as Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko — although the fact that he sometimes seems to be playing second banana to Pooh-Bah is telling. Macaluso is likable enough, but perhaps in the wrong role; for starters, he seems like he just might be the youngest person on the entire stage. (The actor did a capital job last spring, playing both Buttercup and Sir Joseph in Vortex Theater’s reduced “H.M.S. Pinafore.”) Macaluso plays Ko-Ko as a junior Groucho without the mustache, although the one time he uses a Groucho line-reading he dampens the effect by accompanying it with a Harpo sight-gag.
This is indicative of the scattershot humor Bergeret has grafted onto the piece. Poor old William S. Gilbert died 97 years ago, so his ghost probably no longer objects to liberties taken by modern-day directors who consider themselves smarter and funnier. But if you must change lyrics and lines to incorporate Botox, Tivo, Obama, McGreevey, “American Idol,” Six Flags and Client #9, you should only do so when they improve upon what Gilbert wrote.
And what are we to make of the “Mi-ya-sa-ma, Mi-ya-sa-ma” chant reconfigured to “Mitsubishi, Kawasaki”?
The old-fashioned physical production is not a thing of shreds and patches, exactly, but the evening’s main piece of scenery — a full stage backdrop — does feature a sizable patch in the sky, just over the mountains. Otherwise, the set’s main features — designed by the mysteriously single-named Albere, whom one suspects is also the conductor, director and replacement lyricist — are a wooden footbridge masked by cardboard rocks, and a wooden trellis of modern manufacture that climbs high into the fly space above the stage with some plastic vines entwined.
The lovers, Daniel Lockwood’s Nanki-Poo and Laurelyn Watson Chase’s Yum-Yum, are professional enough under the circumstances; Melissa Attebury, as Pitti-Sing, is even moreso, doing especially well in her numbers with the unfunny comedians. But Dianna Dollman’s Katisha seems to have studied comedy with Pooh-Bah, and the two of them seem to have cornered the market on greasepaint. Several members of the male chorus look decidedly grumpy in their heavy eye-makeup, white stockings and flip-flops.
The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players has taken over the cavernous City Center for its “G&S Fest 2008,” with 11 performances through June 15. “The Mikado” is joined by “Pinafore,” “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Gondoliers.”
The group has been presenting the work of the Savoyards locally since 1974. Such longevity indicates a significant fan base, and many of the subscribers seemed to be having a jolly old time at this “Mikado,” with Macaluso and Dall’Ava reducing a significant slice of the assemblage to stitches. And the average age of the audience at the performance viewed appeared to be well under 50, surprisingly low for these 120-year-old operettas. Even so, the group chooses to go under the acronym NYGASP, and that gasp is perhaps well-founded.