Here’s a how-de-do

Oroville’s Birdcage Theatre achieves a merry Mikado

MIRTH AND MAYHEM <br>(from left) Eric Langford, G. Graham Abernathy, and Gretchen Marsh revive the Gilbert and Sullivan classic, <i>The Mikado,</i> in Oroville.

(from left) Eric Langford, G. Graham Abernathy, and Gretchen Marsh revive the Gilbert and Sullivan classic, The Mikado, in Oroville.

Photo by Tom Angel

The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu, William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s most popular operetta, perhaps also a candidate for most poetic, daintiest, drollest and most charming (categories solemnly provided by the Encyclopedia Britannica), awaits Gilbert and Sullivan boosters at Oroville’s Birdcage Theatre.

Those who have not recently visited Titipu and laughed at Ko-Ko’s logic or Pooh-Bah’s venality should attend a show this closing weekend. Where else, in this day and age, will you hear the word “snickersnee” casually warbled? Excellent performances by Mark Alan Johnston as Pooh-Bah and G. Graham Abernathy as the Mikado of Japan are worth the commute, and the doughty efforts of the 11-person chorus (G&S usually had 30 or more voices at their disposal) will ensure you’ll be humming snatches from “Behold the Lord High Executioner” for days afterward.

First staged in 1885 at London’s Savoy Theatre, The Mikado delighted audiences not only with the satisfying alchemical reaction inevitable when Gilbert’s words married Sullivan’s lyrics, but also with exotic costumes, painstaking staging and jokes at the public’s expense. That such harmless satire could woo audiences when racier fare beckoned elsewhere attests to the two authors’ intelligence and creativity. Gilbert, referring to his HMS Pinafore libretto, once commented, “It was my intention to produce something that was innocent, not imbecile.” And despite less-than-amused opinions from Queen Victoria ("Though there are witty remarks and topical allusions, the story is rather silly") and critics of the day ("Mr. Gilbert’s peculiarity has always been to elaborate the one set of ideas which he started as his literary capital"), the same holds true for The Mikado, which thousands of performances for more than 100 years have proven—one even in occupied Japan, circa 1946.

The “rather silly” story hinges on a Mikadian edict banning flirting, punishable by beheading. Titipu residents circumvent this by electing as Lord High Executioner one Ko-Ko, a kindhearted underachiever destined for the blade himself (humorously rendered for the Birdcage production by Eric Langford). This stalls the course of justice long enough for Nanki-Poo, the Mikado’s AWOL son (played by 16-year-old, plaintively pleasant tenor Kenny Kirkman) to wander into town on the trail of Yum-Yum, Ko-Ko’s ward and fiancée (Chico State music major Rebecca Langford, successfully battling bronchitis).

The Mikado, concerned that so few executions have occurred in Titipu, shows up with Nanki-Poo’s own fiancée, Katishaw, a harridan overly conscious of her royal position as Daughter-in-Law Elect (Gretchen Marsh, though more actor than singer, realizes this role very well, especially in Act II during the courtship scene with Ko-Ko). An elaborate hoax to hoodwink the Mikado ensues, with various lives endangered and alliances formed and fragmented, before the happy ending.

The operetta’s Occidental viewpoint brings to life, theorized a Harper’s critic following an 1886 performance in New York, figures as improbable as those on blue-and-white “willow pattern” china: “If they were released from the enchantment which holds them fixed fast upon the soup plates,” he wrote, “they would certainly carry on in this fashion.”

With the Birdcage rendition, limited space and resources are amply compensated for by enthusiasm and much selfless effort—musical Director Claudia Bendorf’s two-and-one-half-hour labor as piano accompanist is nothing short of heroic. Highlights include Kirkman’s “A Wand’ring Minstrel I"; Langford’s “I’ve Got a Little List,” updated to include potential beheadees as bozos on their cell phones, devotees of lawn ornaments and louts with loud car stereos; the women’s chorus in “Comes a Train of Little Ladies"; the tongue-twisting “I Am So Proud” hilariously performed by Johnston, Langford and Director Don Bendorf as Pish-Tush; and Abernathy’s subtly wicked “A More Humane Mikado,” as well as his politely understated query, “What about your execution? Will after luncheon do?” Young Kirkman works hard to refute G&S chat-room gossips who skewer Nanki-Poo as “the wettest tenor in the canon"; the fluidly talented Johnston, however, bears out their assertions that Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else, is capable of practically stealing the show if well-acted.

My few quibbles lie with the scenery, which would have benefited by more attention to Japanese detail; the chorus’s business, which lacked coherent staging and rhythmical precision; and the unfortunately varying range of vocal talents for the "Three Little Maids" trio. Otherwise (Harper’s again), "sheer gaiety that leaves no kind of sting."