Out go the kimonos, and in comes haute couture. Out goes the orchestra, and in comes the electric guitar. Out goes 1885, and in comes 2011.
Mississippi State University Theatre will present a modernized production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” at McComas Hall March 31-April 2 at 7:30 p.m.
Director and MSU instructor Jo Durst said modernization was a natural fit for “The Mikado.” These changes have the potential to attract not only young audiences, but all audiences, she said.
“When I read it, it just felt like it should be modernized,” Durst said. “It has contemporary rhythms to it, so we have set it in what’s called the Harajuku youth culture of Japan, and we’ve added the local rock band, The Mooring Line.”
Durst said the inspiration for the musical arrangement in particular did not actually come from Japan, but from China.
“When I went to Shanghai with my daughter this summer, we went to the acrobats’ circus, which is sort of like their Cirque Du Soleil,” Durst said. “They had a specific style of music, which is modern but has the traditional sound of chinese music within.”
As for the costumes, the area of Tokyo called Harajuku has become internationally known as Japan’s fashion mecca, where young people dress in attire ranging from hot new trends to outlandish costumes resembling cartoon characters and pop stars. Stateside, It inspired Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Lovers” line of fragrances and accessories, and Durst said American audiences should recognize at least one fashion trend worn by the main character, Yum-Yum.
“Yum-Yum is our ‘Hello Kitty,’” Durst said. “It’s a take off on the ‘Hello Kitty’ look. From there, the costumes are all the modern-day Japan Harajuku look which is just... theatrical.”
In the opera, the titular Mikado, or emperor of Japan, makes flirtation a crime punishable by death, but finds this law frustrated when the village executioner Ko-Ko is found guilty of the crime. Meanwhile, the Mikado’s son, Nanki-Poo, falls in love with Yum-Yum only to find she is already betrothed to Ko-Ko.
Yum-Yum has two sisters, Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo, and Danielle Grimes, who plays Pitti-Sing, said the three were as different as “The Powerpuff Girls.” She also said the costumes reflect those differences, with her own costume pulling from the “gothic lolita” subculture of Japanese fashion.
“You have the pretty pink one, the silly blue one, and mine is the gothic, emo, green one,” Grimes said. “She is more of a protector of Yum-Yum, the main character. She is very uncaring, until one of her friends is threatened. At some points, she’s a hopeless romantic.”
Grimes said she was excited about this adaptation of “The Mikado,” especially from a visual standpoint.
“I think it’s going to be visually stunning,” Grimes said. “I think the audience is going to appreciate the modern adaptation, and the rock music. The set and the costumes are just fantastic.”
The lead costumer for “The Mikado” is MSU instructor Melanie Harris, but she said costuming for this production was actually a team effort. She also said the other costumers were big fans of Japanese fashion, music, and anime, and many of them came in knowing more about Harajuku than Harris did.
“I sort of had to play catch up with what they knew,” Harris said. “They were jumping up and down and screaming, saying, ‘We’ve got to do this!’ or, ‘We’ve got to do this thing!’ We started looking at all the different types and subtypes, and we sort of matched up which type went with which character. It’s amazingly complex once you get into it.”
Harris also said the music for the show went beyond the two members of The Mooring Line, incorporating two MSU professors and a guest drummer. This band was specifically created for “The Mikado” at MSU, she said.
Harris also said a key reason Harajuku fashion and modern music fit well with “The Mikado” is that both are bouncy, free-spirited and fun.
“This is not at all a serious play,” Harris said. “It’s lighthearted, and that’s the spirit of the Harajuku fashion. It’s fun for students to pretend and live out that type of lifestyle.”
Durst said she hoped the play would simultaneously create new fans of Gilbert and Sullivan and impress older ones.
“I would like to reach those who love traditional Gilbert and Sullivan, because the songs are still the same,” Durst said. “We’d also like to intrdouce Gilbert and Sullivan to a younger generation and let them know opera is fun to listen to and to watch.”
Both Harris and Durst said they wanted to come up with a way for this production of “The Mikado” to benefit those suffering from the impact of the Sendai earthquake and tsunami. However, because MSU’s spring break began just after the day of the disaster, discussion on that front has only just begun, and Durst said no firm details were yet available.