Orient Express

UA Opera tackles Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Mikado.'

WHEN I CALLED University of Arizona voice professor Charles Roe to talk about the UA Opera Theater's upcoming production of The Mikado, Roe mentioned that this week's show will strongly resemble his 1994 UA production.

"Oh," I said, "so then can I just reprint what I wrote about it back then?"

"No, don't do that!" Roe pretended to plead. "You didn't like my staging!"

Roe says his stage direction will be pretty much the same as last time--in fact, pretty much the same as mainstream stagings of The Mikado have been since this most popular of Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas premiered in 1885. Roe is a traditionalist, and there's a long tradition of what I described as "hammy declamation" in this sort of show.

Which is quite all right, because that's what many Savoyards--ardent Gilbert and Sullivan fans--want. Besides, as I pointed out back in '94, "In the cast's defense, it must be admitted that Gilbert and Sullivan's funniest scenes depend on contrivance and superficiality."

Summarizing the complicated, intentionally silly plot of The Mikado would take almost as long as it would to see the show. Suffice it to say that the operetta concerns true love, arranged marriage and social conventions.

English social conventions, that is, even though the action is set in an almost cartoonish Japan, populated by people with names like Nanki-Poo and Pish-Tush and Yum-Yum. "There are a lot of things one could say about its political incorrectness," Roe admitted, until you remember that dressing the characters up in Japanese garb just made it easier for Gilbert and Sullivan's contemporaries to laugh at themselves.

Some productions have employed Japanese makeup but Victorian costumes during the past couple of decades, an era in which theater people have assumed their audiences to be too stupid to figure things out for themselves. (Most of the recent plays put on at Arizona Theatre Company, for example, require some character to stride through the invisible "fourth wall" and explain everything to us.)

Roe's UA production, in contrast, won't spell everything out. The costumes are colorful, more-or-less traditional Japanese pieces borrowed from ASU Lyric Opera. The orchestra, conducted by Gregg Hanson, will properly play Arthur Sullivan's original score without any mucking-up by modern arrangers.

"It's functional," Roe said too modestly of his production, immediately amending that to "It's classic."

Popular dance profs Melissa Lowe and Jory Hancock have devised the show's choreography. "A lot of our singers have two left feet, and they're learning to differentiate them," Roe said.

"As far as updating the show goes," Roe added, "my theory is to do things traditionally here at the university, because when the students get out into the professional world, that's where they'll have to work with a director who's more interested in showing off his imagination than anything else. But even a traditional staging like ours still has to be funny and charming and delightful and inventive."

Roe is trying to accomplish all that with a cast that ranges from experienced graduate students to young undergrads who've not yet spent many nights treading the boards.

"Joshua Elder, our Mikado, is one of our graduate teaching assistants," Roe said. "Todd Strange, the Nanki-Poo, was Ralph Rackstraw in the H.M.S. Pinafore we did last year, so he already has some Gilbert and Sullivan under his belt. One of our Ko-Kos [many of the roles are double cast] is a music theater major from Sierra Vista named Sean Zimmerman, a really talented young man. He's only a sophomore, but his voice really pings right out there into the hall. The Poo-Bah is Juan Aguirre; he's got a first-class bass voice, he sings with Arizona Opera, and he's coming back here to graduate school this fall. Nicole Lamartine, one of our Yum-Yums, is a doctoral student who's been in a few of our shows, a very experienced young performer, while the other Yum-Yum, Jessica Gold, is a local girl from Flowing Wells High School who just finished her freshman year here; she has a lot of potential."

Roe acknowledged that a university production, by its nature, can't quite measure up to the standards of one of the New York City Opera productions he was featured in not that many years ago. "But what we don't have that's professional we make up in spirit," he said, "because the kids just love doing this. It's full of tuneful music, clever lyrics, beautiful costumes and lots of laughs."

One change that traditionalist Roe does have in store is actually sanctioned by tradition. One verse of the famous "List" song of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner who's enumerating potential victims who "never will be missed," is usually revamped with contemporary references. In '94, Fife Symington made his way onto the list. Roe isn't saying who will be included this time, although when pressed he did rule out one reference.

"No, we didn't put Timothy McVeigh in it," he laughed. "That would be a little tasteless, wouldn't it?"

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