Director Jonathan Miller has stripped the most often performed of the 14 operettas by William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan of its Japanese flummery and reconstituted it as a purely British satire of English society played out in a 1920s London grand hotel setting with characters programmed to the mode of a Marx Brothers film musical.
Because the text remains unchanged, except for a rewording of the patter song "I've Got a Little List" with contemporary references (Gary Condit, Jerry Springer, Martha Stewart, e-mail and cell phones), Miller's tampering with "The Mikado" is grating at first, then becomes as ingratiating as a P.G. Wodehouse novel's divine silliness.
The audience warms to the wit and audacity of Miller's visual satire of flapper-era society overlaying G&S's ridicule of the foibles of their own society, thinly disguised as exotic eccentricities of the Japanese imperial court. The production proves that nothing in the theater need be sacred if changes are made with talent and taste.
The City Opera production, which will be performed through Oct. 28, is based on "The Mikado" Miller created for the English National Opera in 1987 with a stunning black-and-white color scheme reminiscent of Cecil Beaton's Ascot Gavotte scene for the film "My Fair Lady."
A prolific British director who once headed the Old Vic theater company in London, Miller has had an eminently successful career on both sides of the Atlantic. He produced the Metropolitan Opera's current "The Marriage of Figaro" and will stage "Eugene Onegin" for the Santa Fe Opera in the near future.
The City Opera cast hurls itself into this bon-bon of salacious zaniness with its prat-pinching and pratfalls, faux modesty and blatant hypocrisy, and undisguised Victorian sentimentality that is he chief ingredient of G&S confections. Particularly hilarious is Richard Stuart, who plays Ko-Ko, a tailor who is elevated to the rank of Lord High Executioner although he has never killed even a cockroach.
Stuart, who can do acrobatics with his sturdy baritone, is made up to look like Salvador Dali on a bad moustache day and wears an array of costumes that prick the pretensions of Saville Row. He is the consummate comic actor in the Groucho Marx mold, willing to kiss, then lick the spat-protected shoes of his emperor with live-saving enthusiasm that is at first revolting, then howlingly funny.
He meets his match (and mate) in Linda Roark- Strummer as Katisha, the emperor's daughter-in-law-elect, a physically formidable soprano who has all the aplomb associated with Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers movies. Her imperious Act 1 aria accompanied by her private plane pilot transformed into a Liszt-like pianist is a derisive vision of a diva in full cry, gowned in black velvet encrusted with jet beads and wearing a headband with an explosion of aigrette feathers.
Also outstanding are Richard Troxell as Nanki-Poo, the Mikado's son disguised as a wand'ring minstrel who plays second trombone in the Titipu town band. With a spit curl on his forehead, a patched striped blazer and straw boater on his head, and a beautifully focused tenor voice, Troxell is at all times winning as he pursues his first love, Yum-Yum, a dazzling redhead debutante spiritedly sung in a squeaky, little girl soprano by Angela Turner Wilson.
Baritone David Evitts is splendidly elegant at Pooh-Bah, the tail-coated, top-hatted Titipu official of many titles, and bass-baritone Jan Opalach is the pillow-stuffed Mikado who gives the emperor's role the air of a Mafia don who relishes life's little cruelties, especially those of his own devising in his search for the punishment that fits the crime.
Jennifer Dudley and Jennifer Rivera are decorative as Yum-Yum's partners in the trio of little maids from school, and Kevin Burdette fulfills the thankless role of Pish-Tush, Nanki-Poo's confidant, by taking prissy poses. John R. Cole makes the most of his juicy cameo role, the pilot-pianist.
Designer Stefano Lazaridis' surreal, all-white lobby leading to anterooms and hotel room hallways, is decorated by hanging globes representing the moon (nicely spotlighted for "The Moon and I" aria) and other planets, a potted palm and a bonsai pine, a giant Victrola, and a central fountain-banquette. It's a many-splendored set, fashioned to keep the eye roving so as not to miss a delicious detail.
Sue Blane's costumes, which introduce a few black notes to the luminous whiteness of the production, are ingenious in their combination of elegance with amusing commentary on the smart-aleck pertness of the jazz age. She only hints at Japanese fashion once in women's silk boudoir wrappers than resemble abbreviated kimonos.
Stephen Speed's interpretation of Anthony van Laast's original choreography for the London premiere is admirable for its variety (tap, tango, ballroom) and notable for its enthusiastic execution by a battalion of chorus girls dressed as frisky hotel maids wielding feather dusters and chorus boys in smart bellboy uniforms.
Gerald Steichen conducts with a real affection for the unforgettable melodies that were to inspire such American musical comedy masters as Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers. There is still something to be said for musicals whose songs you can hum long after you have left the theater.
For those who want their Gilbert and Sullivan score matched to the traditional staging perfected by the D'Oyly Carte Company in London, there will be a production of "The Mikado" by the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players at the New York City Center Jan. 18-20.