"The first time I saw 'The Mikado,' I thought it was funny," Brian Goodman says. "And I thought the music was great. I still do. It's timeless."
Goodman might be a bit prejudiced -- he's the longtime general manager of Baltimore's Young Victorian Theatre Company, which is marking its 30th anniversary with a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado." But it would be hard to argue with Goodman's assessment.
Of the 13 stage works created by the team of librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, "The Mikado" stands at the peak. Its pun-happy lyrics and lilting tunes, which first delighted audiences 115 years ago, are sure to be engaging them another 115 years from now.
Although very much a product and reflection of British Victorian society and politics, the works in the G & S canon have an uncanny way of communicating to folks far removed from that age, that country, that way of life. You don't need to have a clue what "Parliamentary trains" are, for example, to get a laugh from the Mikado's song about letting the punishment fit the crime.
What keeps "The Mikado" particularly fresh is the enduring nature of its satirical targets. One victim, the public official with a few too many titles and duties, became universally known by the character name given him by Gilbert: Pooh-Bah. As British writer/critic G. K. Chesterton put it, "Pooh-Bah is something more than a satire; he is the truth."
And then there's Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, who's "got a little list" of victims "who never would be missed." Those singled out by Gilbert have hardly faded away, such as "the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own." Or "apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind."
But since Gilbert himself authorized revisions to that list, if it meant getting a bigger laugh, a little tweaking of the text is almost unavoidable. Don't be surprised if in the Young Vic's production Ko-Ko mentions, say, Ray Lewis. Or if the Mikado, still trying to match the punishment with the crime, singles out a certain musical mayor of a major Maryland city.
Goodman would also like to slip in a reference to Mike Leigh's recent bio-pic, "Topsy-Turvy," which had a lot to do with his company's anniversary season.
"We were going to do a double bill of 'Trial by Jury' and 'The Sorcerer' this year," Goodman says. "We did 'Mikado' five years ago. But when 'Topsy-Turvy' came out, there was so much interest in it and it was so well-received that we decided to revive 'Mikado.' "
In fascinating detail, "Topsy-Turvy" revealed how "The Mikado" came to be, starting with Sullivan's frustrations over continuing to place his musical talents at the service of Gilbert's librettos and the burst of inspiration that led to the collaborators' greatest success.
A family production
Among the things that came through strongly in the film was the family-like atmosphere of the seasoned troupe that performed Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas at the Savoy Theatre in London. Those performers were clearly devoted to the genre and its creators, as well as each other. Just like the multigenerational ensemble that calls itself the Young Vic.
"I can't think of another theater group that has everyone from high school students to grandparents, all learning what it's like to put on a professional operetta," says Goodman, 43, who is a lawyer by trade. He had his first exposure to G & S in 1971, attending a "Mikado" production by the then-young Young Vic. In 1976, "right out of high school," he joined the company as a chorus member and became general manager a year later.
Among those following in his footsteps, at least as far as joining the chorus is concerned, are three high schoolers in the upcoming "Mikado."
"I ushered their shows for a couple of years and just decided to start performing with them," says John Haile, before adding with a 16-year-old's wit: "I'm in it for the parties."
Peter McCarthy, 15, and his brother Dan, 17, also got involved first as ushers, then tried out for the chorus. "My family are all big Gilbert and Sullivan fans," Dan says. Peter confirms that. "I like the music and the play," he says of "Mikado."
Onstage at Bryn Mawr School's Centennial Hall, the teen-agers join the other choristers to practice their shuffling entrance as members of the Mikado's court. Trying to turn them Japanese is the show's choreographer, Jodi Segal, who glides and bends and prances like a seasoned ballerina. You might never guess she's an internist at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
And Segal is not the only doctor who moonlights at the Young Vic. Forty five-year-old Steve Goodman (no relation to the general manager) is another. He's starring in the role of Pooh-Bah.
"I sang in the chorus during med school," Goodman says. "And I got my first stage experience with the Young Vic 10 years ago. My real dream is to do opera, and I've sung with Peabody Opera Theatre. But I'm a fan of performing Gilbert and Sullivan. Some people in the opera world look down their noses at it, but it's really great music."
Attention to detail
Goodman's connection with Peabody Opera Theatre helped bring its artistic director, Roger Brunyate, into the Young Vic fold as resident stage director. Brunyate has been rehearsing this year's "Mikado" with the kind of attentiveness to detail that would have been admired by Gilbert, who directed the 1885 premiere.
"I think you're losing some of the antagonism," Brunyate says as Goodman's Pooh-Bah and Shazy King's Katisha rehearse dialogue. The director effectively demonstrates the mean streak he's seeking. Later, he advises Alfonsina Molinari-Rosaly, as Pitti-Sing, to "make it more vampy."
Addressing the whole cast after a run-through of the Mikado's entrance, Brunyate follows a pep talk with a determined attempt to fine-tune the way the chorus gets up from a ceremonial bow. When he senses a tiny dead spot in the action that follows, he asks Segal to devise another bit of stage business to fill it.
And so it goes as the Young Vic gets ready to celebrate 30 years of devotion to Gilbert and Sullivan. What started as a high school summer program with a $10,000 budget has grown into a semi-professional company --principals, orchestra and staff are paid -- that spends about $70,000 on one production each year. The repertoire includes all but two of the 13 operettas (those two are "The Grand Duke" and "Utopia Limited," which virtually no one else ever performs, either). And, unlike some traditional opera companies, the Young Vic continues to perform G & S the way G & S heard their works -- unamplified. "We're purists," Brian Goodman says.
"I love the spirit of doing Gilbert and Sullivan with this company," Steve Goodman adds. "I love the mix of people onstage and the tremendous loyalty of the audience. This is literally community theater. We are providing a service to our community."
What: Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado"
Where: Bryn Mawr School, Centennial Hall, 109 W. Melrose Ave., Roland Park
When: 9 p.m. Friday, Saturday, July 20-22; 3 p.m. July 16, 23.
Tickets: $25, $20 children 12 and under.
Call: $25, $20 children 12 and under.