Most Gilbert & Sullivan fans don’t like to admit it, nor even talk about it, but “The Mikado” is a racist work. Not only does it confuse Chinese and Japanese culture in what it is often stereotyping, but its portrayal of the Japanese as a bloodthirsty and conniving people remained culturally acceptable well beyond the Victorian era in which it was created because of the Second World War and its aftermath. You can hide behind its stereotypes, as most traditional productions attempt to do in a rather hollow fashion, or you can gloriously lampoon them as this Noble Fool production so brilliantly does. From the video montage during the overture which remains us of the Asian stereotype trajectory that “The Mikado” began, which continued on in “Fu Manchu” movies, Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers, Mickey Rooney, Yul Brynner, et al, to the fact that the first act takes place in a meticulously clean modern Japanese subway station, this is definitely not your grandparents’ “Mikado.” The entire cast is Caucasian, but none have mercifully been given painted eyes. Dark wigs instead remind us that this is Japan, but it is a contemporary Japan of the Western imagination filled with Benihanas, Hello Kittys, photographers, Japanese businessmen in dark suits and schoolgirls in uniforms. What is so enjoyable about director Amy Binns-Calvey’s take on the work is not only its cutting-edge laugh-out-loud sense of humor, but the fact that she is so respectful of what does still work about “The Mikado,” namely its contagious melodies, wry rhymes and exploration of the fallibility of relationships in any country. The work’s most poignant and singable moments remain as glorious as ever—helped along by a strong cast and “Rent”-inspired rock arrangements by Bonnie Shadrake—but without the guilt. (Dennis Polkow)
“The Mikado version 2.005” plays at Noble Fool Theater, Pheasant Run Resort, 4051 West Main, St. Charles, (630)584-6342, through September 4.