ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It would be impossible to overestimate the cultural importance of the late 19th century theatrical partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan. The duo influenced Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, the American musical and indeed the English language itself. The writing team is famous for its absurdist comic operas, such as “The Pirates of Penzance” and “H.M.S Pinafore.”
Another favorite, “The Mikado,” is being presented by the Adobe Theater, brilliantly directed by Jane and Cy Hoffman.
It takes place in a fictional Japanese town called Titipu, but the play satirizes British politics, not Japanese.
Disguised as an itinerant minstrel, the son of the Mikado (or emperor) Nanki-Poo, arrives in Titipu looking for his lover, Yum-Yum. In truth, Nanki-Poo is as much running away from the hideously ugly termagant Katisha, whom he was expected to marry, as he is running to Yum-Yum. Unfortunately, Yum-Yum is scheduled to marry the Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko that very day. Ko-Ko was to be the first citizen executed for the capital crime of flirting, but he was appointed to his position of power.
That should give you some idea of the wacky world of W.S. Gilbert, the playwright who concocted this irreverent satire.
The Hoffmans have changed some of the dated lyrics to make the opera more relevant to the modern world. For instance, the song “As Some Day It May Happen” is about “pestilential nuisances” who would not be missed if they were executed. The original lists people with flabby handshakes and irritating laughs, not likely to garner a laugh in this day and age. In the revised version, it’s Wall Street financiers, corporate lobbyists and people who constantly update their Facebook statuses. I found it amazing that the Hoffmans’ were able to adapt the new lyrics to Gilbert’s rhythms and Sullivan’s orchestration so perfectly.
Few today know that W.S. Gilbert was the chief influence on Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” but you can see the similarities in the comic absurdity of “The Mikado.” Luckily, the Hoffmans have cast some first-rate comic actors who are also fine singers.
Best of all is Tim MacAlpine as Ko-Ko, who is reminiscent of Buster Keaton in his physical adroitness. But Keaton is known mostly for his silent films, and MacAlpine is equally proficient in his vocal technique and singing ability.
Madi Frost is terrific as the vain and superficial Yum-Yum, while Christina Nuki Akerson is deliciously over-the-top as the harpy Katisha.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the character of Poo-Bah, who graced the English language with a new word (Poo-bah means “a self-important person of great influence”). Poo-Bah holds all the highest offices in Titipu, including first lord of the treasury, lord chief justice, to name just a few.
Warren Asa Wilgus captures the pomposity and venality of the character well, and has a deep, rich singing voice to boot.
“The Mikado” plays through May 14 at Adobe Theater, 9813 Fourth NW, Albuquerque. Go to adobetheater.org or call 898-9222 for reservations.