Welcome back, Gilbert and Sullivan. Some of us really missed you.
It could well be that the legendary duo's uniquely British combination of vocal acrobatics and rapier-sharp wit makes their work an ideal training ground for students of the dramatic arts.
That would explain why, after many years of G&S shows staged in past decades here by the former Grenville Christian College, a new batch of students, this time from St. Lawrence College, have taken up the task of keeping the fast rhymes and mordant satire alive.
The SLC music theatre performance program's production of The Mikado, which opens tonight at the Brockville Arts Centre, is worth taking in if only to bask in the brilliant language, and the skilful way these students handle such gems as “The youth who winked a roving eye,/Or breathed a non-connubial sigh,/Was thereupon condemned to die/He usually objected.”
But this particular G&S classic is a treat for the eyes as well as the ears. with colourful costumes just extravagant enough to be mock-Japanese for the sake of satire while remaining enchanting.
The majority of the performers are wearing the original costumes worn by the cast of the Stratford Festival’s 1982 production of the show, while some of the original set pieces from the Stratford production are also being used.
A Wednesday dress rehearsal saw the SLC students handling the production with remarkable vocal and choreographic discipline and superb acting.
Locals Allison Hess, in the role of Yum-Yum, and Kierans Jordan as Ko-Ko are a joy to watch. Meanwhile, Kory Fulton as the haughty yet effete Pooh-Bah injects the production with a strong dose of physical comedy.
Gilbert and Sullivan set the 1885 comic opera in Japan to create an exotic setting in which to disguise their satire of Victorian society, hence the decidedly silly character names.
The story, which lampoons polite society, romantic conventions and bureaucratic rigidity, follows Nanki-Poo (capably played in this run-through by Gabriel Vaillant) in his pursuit of the lovely Yum-Yum, who is to wed her protector Ko-Ko, also the Lord High Executioner.
What ensues is a comic intrigue in which the possibility of the characters' execution looms large – until it is deflated at the end.
The Mikado is in fact obsessed with capital punishment, an example of the kind of dark humour that would survive, a century later, in such British popular culture mainstays as Monty Python.
“Burial alive, it's such a stuffy death,” remarks Yum-Yum at one point, while, in true G&S fashion, the performers turn a death sentence into fodder for a clever and agile tongue-twister: “To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,/ In a pestilential prison, with a life-long lock,/ Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,/ From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!”
This production literally derives much of its comic power from gallows humour, which stops a hair's breadth away from the more existential reflections on mortality more characteristic of the 20th century, before snapping back in a display of agility and wit.
In keeping with Mikado tradition, the “Little List” song, in which Ko-Ko outlines different types of people who would “not be missed” if executed, is here rewritten for the purpose of local and contemporary satire, with references to Prime Minister “Steve Harper,” Premier Dalton McGuinty's battle with teachers and even Brockville Mayor David Henderson.
The Mikado is well worth seeing and, one hopes, will not be the last G&S production to be staged by the St. Lawrence College program.
WHAT: The Mikado, directed by Michael Bianchin, with music direction by Christopher Coyea and choreography by Janet Venn Jackson, a St. Lawrence College music theatre performance program production;
WHEN: Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday, at 2 p.m.
WHERE: Brockville Arts Centre
TICKETS: $37 (Adults), $30 (Group of 10 adults). $26.50 (Students),$24.50 (Group of 10 students). Prices do not include HST. Call 613-342-7122 for information.
DRAW YOUR SNICKERSNEE
Excerpts from a glossary of 19th-century English, provided in the program for The Mikado:
Con fuoco: Italian for “with fervour”;
Effulgent: giving off a flood of light;
Persiflage: light or frivolous manner of discussing a subject;
Snickersnee: a long knife or small sword;
Toco: schoolboy slang for punishment;
Tocsin: A warning bell.