Let's Put on an Operetta

What's the best way to avoid the expense and effort of intricate sets and elaborate costumes when producing theater? Put on a play about people putting on a play! Instantly, your audience recognizes the simple props or costumes as the kind of work your characters might have created. What would have been merely sufficient now becomes endearing. So it is with Theater Ten Ten's revival production of The Singapore Mikado. Its thoroughly enjoyable version of Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta takes place in British-occupied Singapore on Dec. 10, 1941. The time and setting are significant, marking the date of Japan's devastating attack on the British Navy in World War II. As the audience, we are guests at the Christmas party of Sir Evelyn and Lady Judith Estebrooke. For entertainment, the partygoers take roles in The Mikado and perform it for us.

It is clear that you are seeing a "play within a play" from the moment you walk into the theater. Malphal Singh, Sir Estebrooke's servant, welcomes you to the "party" and gives you your second program for the evening—the program that lists the biographical information on the "actors" in The Mikado. For a brief, terrifying moment, I was concerned that the fourth wall would not just be broken but penetrated, allowing for unsuspecting audience members to be sucked into the action. Fortunately, everyone remained safely in his or her seats for the entire evening.

The interesting layer of meta-theatricality—staging, in Singapore, a musical about a small Japanese village—also highlights an under-explored period in World War II history. As The Mikado wraps up, Sir Estebrooke receives the news that the British stronghold is now under the control of the Japanese. The performers, suddenly sobered by the report of extensive casualties in the attack, complete the final musical number wrapped in kimonos but with stony expressions on their faces. The party is no longer jolly.

The Singapore Mikado is, despite the creative nesting of story line, still an operetta, and a demanding one at that. Theater Ten Ten has assembled a wonderfully gifted cast, from the principals to the ensemble members. The company's producing arrangements allowed it to cast both Equity and non-Equity performers, and the show features a well-balanced mix of young, talented singers (the adorable Emily Grundstad and Martin Fox as Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo) and seasoned veterans (David Arthur Bachrach as a natty, jovial Mikado and Cristiane Young as the formidable Katisha).

As Ko-Ko, the High Executioner doomed to be his own victim, Greg Horton embraced every nuance of his character's narcissism, connivance, and cowardice. The result was a near-constant source of comedy. David Tillistrand provided a solid comic interpretation of the proud, overly employed Pooh-Bah (he's the town's sheriff, magistrate, treasurer, tax collector, coroner, etc.). The vocal performances of both men were, like their acting, outstanding.

The one character unique to this version of The Mikado is the houseboy/stage manager, Malphal Singh (Andrew Clateman). Played with a wide-eyed earnestness, Clateman's Singh performs the multiple tasks of a Shakespearean clown. He distributes props, accompanies pianist Benno Matthay (Joel Gelpe) on the drum and triangle, and moves furniture, even interrupting Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo's love scene to change the set. However, his greatest feat may have been sitting cross-legged and motionless onstage during the entire 10-minute intermission.

The costumes and props, incidentally, were fine. Not only were there kimono-style robes for the musical portion, but all of the "performers" were outfitted in "street clothes" that included nice reproductions of military uniforms and party clothes appropriate for 1941. The set, designed by Katharine Day, was flexible enough to accommodate the entire cast appearing onstage at once and still provided a simple, classy environment.

In New York, it's easy to discount productions that don't appear in an avant-garde festival or take place in a tiny space in Greenwich Village. Park Avenue along the East 80's is not an area known for its gutsy theater scene. But sometimes the best work can be found in an Upper East Side church basement. Theater Ten Ten has successfully restaged a much-loved classic in this refreshing interpretation.

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