Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production prompted an op-ed bashing the piece for its “yellowface”. (The criticism was not directed at the society’s staging in particular, which the author had not seen, but rather at their choice of show.) A planned Mikado in New York was cancelled after activists rallied against it.

Charles Martin (Pooba) and Samuel Rabinowitz (Coco) © Lucas Buxman
Charles Martin (Pooba) and Samuel Rabinowitz (Coco)
© Lucas Buxman
What’s a Gilbert and Sullivan company to do? Concerns about propagating stereotypes and mocking other cultures are valid. But The Mikado contains many of the duo’s best songs and lyrics; to simply drop it from the repertoire would be a great loss. Initially, the Lamplighters tried to work with local Asian-American advocacy groups to ensure that their production would be respectful. When those conversations reached an impasse, they made a bold pivot and reset the operetta in Renaissance Italy, in Milan (pronounced to rhyme with “Japan”).

Critics should be appeased – there’s not a whiff of Orientalism about this Mikado. Traditionalists should also be pleased – it’s every bit as funny and as Gilbert and Sullivan-y as the original. (In fact, relatively few changes were needed. A few names and titles here, a few bits of dialogue there, the one song in Japanese re-written in Latin, and ecco! I hope the Lamplighters will share their revised script with other light opera companies.) Much of the humor in this production is derived precisely from self-aware references to the change of setting. Coco’s brilliantly re-written “little list” of prime candidates for execution includes not only Bernie Bros, Brexiters, Trump, and Pokemon Go players, but also “cultural appropriators putting on a show”. Niccolù proposes that he might manage to forget his heartbreak if he “were to withdraw from Europe and travel in Japan for a few years…" 

Looking at the show, it’s difficult to believe that Italy was not in the director’s and designers’ minds all along. Costume designer Miriam Lewis’ sumptuous creations had me drooling with envy. Simple but picturesque sets (a castle in the background, a few trees in the foreground) and a tiresome pair of ever-present commedia mimes completed the atmosphere.

Samuel Rabinowitz (Coco) and Anne Hubble (Catiscià) © Joe Giammarco
Samuel Rabinowitz (Coco) and Anne Hubble (Catiscià)
© Joe Giammarco

Of course, the heart of operetta is the singing and acting, and the Lamplighters lived up to their high reputation. Without exception, the cast showed off lovely voices and impeccable comic timing. Erin O’Meally and Patrick Hagen made a sweet-voiced pair as Amiam and Niccolù. O’Meally’s “The sun, whose rays are all ablaze” soared and shimmered. With Pizzi (Elana Cowen) and Piccia Tuccia (Michael Orlinsky), they formed a devastatingly beautiful madrigal quartet for “Brightly dawns our wedding day”. Orlinsky also deserves a special mention for his quietly intimidating way of playing with his dagger. Allison Spencer rounded out the trio of schoolgirls as the deliciously catty Pippa.

Samuel Rabinowitz (Coco) and Patricia Westley (Amiam) © David Allen
Samuel Rabinowitz (Coco) and Patricia Westley (Amiam)
© David Allen
As Poobà, Charles Martin was perfectly ridiculous in his multi-colored tights and unrivalled hauteur. Samuel Rabinowitz proved a Lord High Executioner with much of the tailor still about him, including the measuring tape he carried around his neck and occasionally used as a jump rope. Both sang with strong tone and pattered at breakneck pace. After an unsteady start to his first number, Rabinowitz delighted the audience with his “little list”, delivering the hilarious lyrics with clear diction and amusing nonchalance.

Two of the best roles appear only in the second act. Ben Brady made a commanding entrance as the Ducato (yes, that’s the Milanese Mikado). Brady possesses a full-blown operatic voice with uninterrupted legato and a rich, gravelly tone. He also has exceedingly expressive eyebrows and amusingly awkward dance moves. As his daughter-in-law-elect Catiscià, Anne Hubble embodied grandiose melodrama. The vibrato in her booming voice was wide and sometimes uneven, but a wobble rather suited her older, over-the-top character.

Baker Peeples led the Lamplighters Orchestra in a clean and lively reading of the score. Brass bellowed, strings sang, and woodwinds warbled. If they couldn’t quite keep up with the patter trio, that’s mostly a testament to the singers’ speed.