Monday, August 20, 2012

Here's a Howdy Do

How many times have I seen The Mikado?  I can't even begin to count them.  I first became aware of The Mikado when I read "Marjorie Morningstar."  Marjorie was cast as the title character in her college production by a director who thought that was the leading role.  According to the book, the girl playing KoKo fell apart and Marjorie took command of the stage and saved the show.  I knew nothing about the show at all at that time.

I actually saw it first in the 1960s when The Lamplighters were still performing at the old Harding Theater in San Francisco, in what was then a not very safe neighborhood.  I first saw Gilbert playing KoKo there and was so taken with the character he created that I dragged Walt back to see his performance over and over again.

Then, of course, the rest is history, with my joining Alison and Carolyn to write the first Lamplighters history, becoming best friends with Gilbert, going to all the shows all the time, seeing Mikado over and over again.  Seeing other productions, too, like the touring D'Oyly Carte company, productions at the International Gilbert & Sullivan festival in England, checking out productions on video (like the one by Groucho Marx).  And continuing to attend new Lamplighters productions of the show.

Mikado is my second favorite Gilbert & Sulllivan (Iolanthe is the first), and I am very particular about the person who plays KoKo.  Was Gilbert the greatest KoKo ever?  Probably not.  It's a very subjective decision and I'm sure there are hundreds of wonderful KoKos out there, that others think are "the best" KoKo.  But Gilbert is the standard by which I judge all the KoKos that I see.  

Longtime leading patterman Rick Williams was also a huge fan of Gilbert's KoKo and worked hard to equal it.  And he definitely was a great KoKo, absorbing Gilbert's portrayal and then building on that to make it his own, a role he played several times.  Others have played the role on the Lamplighters stage through the years with varying degrees of success.

I had heard nothing but wonderful things about the latest production, with Lawrence Ewing in the role of KoKo and when Walt asked if I wanted to go, of course I said yes.  I'm always happy to check out a new Mikado.
Aside:  When we went on our trip, someone had agreed (I thought) to review a show for me in my absence.  The show did not get reviewed because the potential reviewer decided that s/he had "nothing new to say about this particular show."  I took exception to that excuse.  IMHO, the role of a critic is not to educate the public about a particular work that has been reviewed to death already by far better critics, but to review the production.   I cannot begin to count the number of times that I have seen The Mikado, and if I were just to review the script, no, there is nothing new I could say about it, but this production was unlike any done at the Lamplighters before, was excellent, and is why I go to shows that I have seen 100 times see how the new production is!
(I had to add that remark because I have not let the reviewer in question know how much I disagree with his/her decision of why not to review a show and I'm still fuming about it!)
But I digress.

Comparing this new production of Mikado to previous Lamplighters productions may not be like comparing apples and oranges, but it could be like comparing oranges and tangerines.  Unmistakably a Lamplighters production, but with noticeable differences.  Tempos a bit slower in places...I am reminded of my very first "celebrity" interview, when I was part of a group of "press" (I was not yet officially "press") interviewing director Mike Leigh, who directed Topsy Turvy.  All of us Lamplighters who saw the movie together at a special screening couldn't understand why he took such v-e-r-y s-l-o-w tempos.  So that was my question--something about the tempos.  Leigh glared at me and snapped "Absolutely accurate." or something like that.  So maybe today's tempos were a blend of Lamplighters upbeat tempos and Sullivan's slower tempos!   I also decided I'd been going to LL shows for too many years when, after two beats on the drum, I realized that it was not Norman Peck, the LLs long-time percussionist!   (To my surprise, even Walt noticed the difference, both in the tempos and in the drummer.)

This is not as broadly comedic as previous productions of this show, though there were a lot of laughs at the re-written List Song, where KoKo lists all the people he would execute, if he had to execute someone.  Traditionally the humor comes from KoKo having a very long list that stretches across the stage.  This time he had an iPad and instead of showing the names on paper, pictures flashed on the subtitle board across the stage as KoKo flicked his finger across the screen of the iPad. 

A lot of places where I am used to hearing big guffaws from the audience were played more low key so that there were barely snickers, yet my favorite part, where KoKo offers his love to Katisha and she turns and roars at him, causing him to cower beneath her as he says "shrink not from me, Katisha" was perfect, unlike too many productions I see which waste this big laugh moment.

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As for Lawrence's KoKo, it was wonderful.  Absolutely nothing like either Gilbert or Rick, but entirely his own, and equally as terrific.  (You may cherish memories of Gilbert Russak’s Ko-Ko, but here comes F. Lawrence Ewing with a wholly different, mercurial, slippery take on the Lord High Executioner-in-spite-of-himself, says Robert Commanday former critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, now writing for San Francisco Classical Voice) This was a slightly more in-control KoKo, a bit smoother, less afraid of his own shadow. Also his moves reflected Lawrence's ballet training. (Ewing’s Ko-Ko was ever so wily and enchanting a con man, with fine delivery of Ko-Ko’s great numbers like the terrific takeoff on the operatic “willow song,” and with sleek moves, really danced. continues Commanday)

So even though this was just one. more. Mikado. it was a great production and I'm so glad we went.

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