Ever since its premiere at London’s Savoy Theatre in 1885, The Mikado, a farce set in a daffy fantasy Japan called Titipu, has routinely been performed in yellowface, a practice increasingly untenable in any enlightened metropolis. Yet, demand for this ninth of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operettas—with hits like “A wand’ring minstrel I,” “Three little maids from school,” and so many more—shows no sign of waning. What to do?
Change the setting! And why not? As the Victorians understood perfectly well, the laugh was not on people halfway around the world but on the stuffy, naïve, sentimental, and pompous compatriots in their midst. Ahead of the curve, as he so often has been, the physician (The Body in Question), comic (Beyond the Fringe), stage director (the mafioso Rigoletto), and all-around brainiac Jonathan Miller pushed this insight to its logical theatrical conclusion with a production for the English National Opera, opening today. Unveiled in 1987, Miller’s Mikado scuppered Japonaiserie in favor of crisp Englishisms in the vein of The Boy Friend or My Fair Lady.
London audiences were over the moon, and so they remain, more than a dozen sold-out revivals later. Hilarity invariably peaks when Ko-Ko—formerly a lowly tailor condemned to death for flirting, now the almighty Lord High Executioner—delivers his “little” hit list of enemies who never would be missed. Richard Suart, who has owned the part for many a season, is back for the current revival (through November 30), doubtless with some fresh barbs for folks like Straw-headed Boris and Donald the Orange. John Tomlinson—a gaunt John the Baptist lookalike once revered as Wotan and Boris Godunov—takes the title role, envisioned here as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. —Matthew Gurewitsch