A&E // 1987 // 130 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kerry Birmingham (Retired) // April 18th, 2006
Let the punishment fit the crime.
The Mikado, among the more famous of Gilbert & Sullivan's comic operettas, remains one of the most frequently staged of the duo's works. There's an understandable appeal: it's about as light and frothy a period piece about beheading as you're likely to find (with songs, no less). As such, its setting -- an ancient Japan under the heel of The Mikado (half emperor, half god) -- was never as important as its farcical elements and absurd plot contrivances, like a Victorian Benny Hill Show (or Shakespeare's comedies, if you need a more highbrow reference). That being the case, why NOT switch the setting to a 1920s English resort, and why NOT reinforce that specific brand of English silliness by casting Eric Idle to add that Monty Python sheen? This release, a 1987 production filmed for BBC broadcast, attempts to answer those questions and shake up the operetta's typical staging.
The young minstrel Nanki-Poo (Bonaventura Botone) comes to the town of Titipu, where he is looking for a girl he had only glimpsed a year earlier, the apparently aptly named Yum-Yum (Lesley Garrett). It's love at first sight, but unfortunately Yum-Yum is engaged to be married to Ko-Ko (Idle), recently appointed the town's Lord High Executioner on the whim of The Mikado. Ko-Ko, however, has no desire to execute anyone, but The Mikado demands someone be executed. Despondent Nanki-Poo's attempt to kill himself over his lost love is interrupted by Ko-Ko, who offers to do the job for him in his official capacity as executioner. Nanki-Poo agrees, on the condition that he be allowed to marry Yum-Yum and live a full month of wedded bliss before he is beheaded, after which Ko-Ko will marry the widowed Yum-Yum as was originally planned. Their convoluted plan is complicated by the vagaries of the law, the arrival of Nanki-Poo's spurned fiancee, Katisha (Felicity Palmer), and the revelation that Nanki-Poo is in reality The Mikado's son!
There's really only two kinds of viewers this particular production of The Mikado will attract: Gilbert & Sullivan devotees on board for the unique production and fans of Eric Idle. Of the two groups, the latter will be well served. Idle, as the name above the marquee, is obviously the draw. As Ko-Ko, Idle gamely munches on scenery, talk-sings through most of his musical numbers, and ad-libs material, and is even given an altered, culturally updated version of "As Some Day It May Happen" ("I've got a little list/Of society offenders who might well be underground/and who never would be missed..."). An appreciation of Idle's performance will heavily influence the viewer's enjoyment, or lack thereof; it's true that Idle is hammy, cartoonish, and largely unequipped to handle the songs given to him, but then: it's Eric Idle. No one hires Idle for his nuanced performances or his sweeping tenor; anyone going into this should be aware that Idle may not be the hero of the piece, but he at all times commands attention, and judging from audience reaction, the draw of his name was a wise production decision. As if to balance the risky casting of Idle, the rest of the cast is stocked with veteran stage actors whose names don't carry anything, but their voices certainly do (Garrett and Palmer have the strongest voices in a strong cast). He may not be technically proficient (or even close), but Ko-Ko is broad enough a character that Idle feels right at home in his skin.
Theater fans may have some issues with the production in itself. In the behind the scenes footage, director John Michael Phillips explains the decision to switch the setting as a way to emphasize the inherent Englishness of the work. Phillips argues that more period-accurate productions are anachronistic, since the humor and the language of The Mikado were always as distinctly English as its composer and playwright, and therefore the Japanese milieu never needed to be realistically represented or, in this case, there at all. It's a fair point, but regardless, a lot of things get lost in translation, or lost in production, as it were. Phillips attempts to transfer a distinctly English play transferred to ancient Japan transferred back to England, and the resulting muddle speaks of the identity crisis. Kimonos and kabuki makeup clash with neckties and top hats; proper English gentlemen boast of being "gentlemen from Japan." It's destined to be viewed as a nice experiment; whether it's a surprising success or a noble failure will probably vary by viewer.
I say that this will attract Gilbert & Sullivan devotees rather than casual theater-watchers not just because of the unusual setting switch. This is not a play adapted to the screen; it is an actual performance of the play, filmed for television. The most immediate problem this creates is sound difficulty. The cast is playing to a theater audience, after all, but on tape things sound drowned and muffled; as a first-time viewer, I found it hard to understand the words to most of the songs without a copy of the libretto (the DVD supposedly allows you to download a copy of the libretto, a feature I could not get to work on multiple computers). Though a relatively grand production, all white columns and gaggles of extras in formalwear, things like the stage makeup translate badly on screen, and though they do their best to make it visually interesting for a TV audience with things like in-camera special effects, it's hard to get away from the, uh, staginess (which I suppose is only natural). The flaws are not so much in the play, robustly acted and enthusiastically sung, but in the disconnect between the performance on the stage and the performance on the screen.
Aside from the downloadable libretto I was unable to use, the special features consist of fairly extensive cast biographies (presumably using information straight from the playbill) and "A Source of Innocent Merriment," a half-hour making-of that will remind theater geeks just how exhausting mounting a stage production can be.
No matter how silly the whole thing is to begin with, using your fingers to pull at your eyes to look "Asian" every time the word "Japan" comes up is still pretty juvenile.
Eric Idle fans will find a lot to like in his mugging, spastic performance as Ko-Ko, and fans of the operetta and its authors will be taken in by the strong ensemble and unusual production design. Amateurs might do well to track down a more traditional, more aurally sound production.
Nothing could possibly be more satisfactory. (Well, that's not true, but it's the last spoken line in the operetta. Work with me here.)
Review content copyright © 2006 Kerry Birmingham; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "A Source of Innocent Merriment: The Making of The Mikado" Featurette
* Downloadable Mikado Libretto
* Cast Biographies
* Alternate Libretto and Web Resource