Fact: No amount of updating or clever modern-day references will make Gilbert & Sullivan operettas cool. And that's OK with dorky old farts like me.
I started mainlining G&S when I was a teenage usher at the Light Opera of Manhattan in the 1970s. I can practically sing the G&S canon from memory -- although my one foray into a meeting of the G&S Society, which centered on robust singalongs, was traumatizing for its X-treme dorkiness. I'll do my singalonging in private, thank you, when I slap my D'oyly Carte albums on the Victrola.
Fans of G&S realize we are roughly seven times geekier than Gleeks. We understand that knowing the lyrics to "Three Little Maids from School" does zero for our street cred. We can deal with it. And for the most part, we prefer our G&S straight up.
Still, I went to see the Fort Worth Opera Festival update of The Mikado with an open mind. G&S wrote pop-culture satires for their day; The Mikado reflects a fad of the mid-1880s in the U.K., when hipsters had to have "all one sees that's Japanese," according to a lyric in G&S's Patience (a satire of the aesthetic movement). So updating the satire is not a stretch, and that's what the Fort Worth Opera has done, pulling in everything from Wheelies to Oprah (if those can be considered two ends of a spectrum).
Here's a little list of which updates worked and which didn't for this G&S geek:
The Cute - The male chorus is a bunch of dark-suited Japanese businessmen with cell phones. Perfect. Too bad they didn't sing as loudly as most people talk on their cells. - The female chorus wore Japanese schoolgirl uniforms with Hello Kitty backpacks. - For accompaniment to his opening song, "A Wandering Minstrel I," Nanki-Poo (Logan Rucker) flips open his laptop. - "I've Got a Little List," sung by Lane Johnson as the Lord High Executioner (a k a Ko-Ko) about "society's offenders who might well be underground" begs for updating -- even traditional productions usually throw in a modern reference or two. Sunday's version was so up-to-date, it referenced last week's Rapture fail, replacing a joke about the Birthers. (The lyrics projected above the stage hadn't been changed.) Some of the new lyrics were better than others (you would behead a bartender who "cannot cut a decent lemon twist"? That's harsh). But the Oprah references were funny. - The Mikado (Matthew Young) makes his entrance on a Segway for no particular reason I can tell, but it was fun to watch.
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The Objectionable - Jessica Cates has a gorgeous voice, but her trashy, bratty pink-wigged Yum-Yum isn't likeable. I wanted Nanki Poo to dump her and run off with Amanda Robie's cute Pitti-Sing. But then, I always root for the funny best friend over the hot chick. - Overstaged, overstaged, overstaged. Like a Britney or Fergie concert, every number is crammed with dancing, which is only so-so (let the singers sing) and interferes with the impact of the music. I particularly hated all the mugging and schtick during the second-act opening, when Yum-Yum prepares for her wedding. The big joke (I won't spoil it) grossed me out. And I'm sure composer Sir Arthur Sullivan, who was dead serious about his work, would be appalled by all the goofing around during his gorgeous four-part madrigal.
The WTF? If this is supposed to be a take-off on modern-day Japan, some of the costumes are real headscratchers: - Ko-Ko looks like Grandpa Munster and Pooh-Bah (Jesse Enderle--he was swell) seems to have stolen his suit from Tommy Tune. - Pish-Tush (Joel Herold) reminded me of Doc Brown from Back to the Future, which would be updating to a 26-year-old movie. And he's on Wheelies, which perhaps explains what look like knee pads on his suit. - Is the Mikado supposed to be a sushi chef? A Benihana chef? Either way...
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to stream Topsy-Turvy, the terrific 1999 movie about the creation of The Mikado. And, in the privacy of my own home, I will sing along. Total dork-out.
Catch the final two performances of The Mikado May 27 and June 4. Visit fwopera.org for tickets.