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Playing with Gilbert and Sullivan

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / May 19, 2009
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The Huntington Theatre's presentation of "Pirates!" takes more liberties than the average Gilbert and Sullivan production - aficionados can be protectively resistant to nontraditional stagings. But as the operettas have made their way into more mainstream pop culture, they have occasionally been substantially revamped.

I help myself in a royal way. One of the earliest adaptations was in 1938, with the Federal Theatre Project's all-black "The Swing Mikado." Producer Michael Todd borrowed/stole the idea the following year for his altogether jazzier and flashier version, "The Hot Mikado," with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the title role; the show became one of the most popular attractions at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

We're bent on signalizing with unusual revelry. In 1983, up-and-coming enfant-terrible director Peter Sellars (with the late Craig Smith conducting) modernized "The Mikado" for Lyric Opera of Chicago; the "gentlemen from Japan" were a boardroom of electronics magnates, Nanki-Poo accompanied himself on an electric guitar, and the veteran Mikado Donald Adams entered in a Datsun.

We knew your taste for curious quips. Jonathan Miller's 1986 staging of "The Mikado" for the English National Opera - eschewing the Japanese setting, the action took place at an English seaside resort - was an enormous (and frequently-revived) hit. For a 1992 sequel, the ENO turned infamous director Ken Russell loose on "Princess Ida," and Russell delivered the expected scandal: Castle Adamant was reimagined as "Buck'n'Yen Palace," Britain having been turned into a theme park by US and Japanese corporate interests. Like the original, the staging was not a box-office success.

Our feelings we with difficulty smother. In 2007, California's Lodestone Theatre brought the satiric exoticism of "The Mikado" full circle with "The Mikado Project," featuring an all-Asian cast tackling a century-plus of accrued stereotypes head-on, with a hip-hop-enriched musical vocabulary. (A film version, directed, like the play, by Chil Kong, is currently in post-production.)

Ye shall live in song and story. In the 1990s, Brian Macdonald enthusiastically tweaked the G&S canon in popular productions for Canada's Stratford Festival; his 1994 "Pirates of Penzance," for example, featured a corps of British Savoyards in 1920s Hollywood, filming a movie version. But writer-director George S. Kaufman got there first with his 1945 Broadway production "Hollywood Pinafore." "We sail the ocean blue" became a Tinseltown chorus: "We are simple movie folk/ Of the Wood that's known as Holly."

I can write a washing-bill in Babylonic cuneiform. Gilbert's idiosyncratically English wordplay notwithstanding, the operettas have occasionally been translated. Most intriguing was a 2001 performance of "The Mikado" in Japanese translation, mounted in the town of Chichibu (possibly Gilbert's inspiration for the town of Titipu). But most linguistically extravagant is surely Al Grand's 1988 Yiddish version of "Pirates," "Di Yam Gazlonim" ("The Robbers of the Sea"), with a "Groyser General" who can dance a hora while he plays the harmonica. A 2007 revival by New York's Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre was nominated for a Drama Desk Award.

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