Cabaret theme cracks open The Mikado

North Shore Light Opera Society celebrates 65th anniversary with a new production of operetta

- North Shore Light Opera Society presents The Mikado at Presentation House Theatre. April 20 and 21, April 26 to 28 and May 2 to 5 at 8 p.m. and April 22 and 29 at 2 p.m. Tickets: Adults $30; seniors $25; students $20. Phone: 604.990.3474 or online:

NECESSITY, they say, is the mother of invention.

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For the North Shore Light Opera Society, "British Columbia's oldest, continuously producing community musical theatre group," casting and budgeting necessities are also the mother of some brilliant artistic inventions.

Opening today at Presentation House Theatre is NSLOS's production of The Mikado, one of the most-loved shows penned by legendary duo William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

"It's one of the greatest operettas ever written," says director Matthew Bissett. "Pointed satire is something I enjoy, and something that Gilbert is very good at. I'd put him up there with Sondheim and Hammerstein as one of the great lyricists of the last 150 years. No one can put words together like Gilbert. So part of the joy is his intelligence.

It's like watching George Bernard Shaw. He still has good things to say, but part of it is just being in the company of this incisive intelligence. It's fun to hang out with those guys."

This is Bissett's fifth Gilbert and Sullivan production with the society, after being part of a string of their lesser-known works like Patience, Iolanthe, Ruddigore and Yeoman of the Guard.

"I was holding out this year," Bissett says, "that if we are going to do one, let's do one of the greats. I've been in The Mikado before and it's one that I always wanted to try as a director."

In addition to being a lot of fun, Gilbert and Sullivan operas have the added benefit of being public domain - free from upfront costs and royalties.

"It's something you can do without the starting hit of $10,000," Bissett says.

The Mikado is a thinly-veiled mockery of British society in the late nineteenth century. In the Japanese town of Titipu, a humble tailor named Ko-Ko is handed the title of Lord High Executioner, and the mighty Mikado tells him to get on with his job. Ko-Ko also has to find a way to win the heart of the lovely Yum-Yum.

But Bissett and producer Roger Nelson decided to take a completely different approach.

"We ended up with lots of good people to fill the lead roles," Bissett says, "but as we started to cast our chorus, we kept seeing women and women and more women. It was very hard to find men who were willing to be in the chorus."

Seeing as the opening number is "If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan," the opera society was in a bit of a bind.

"Are they going to have puppets?" Bissett asks. "Are they going to have fake moustaches?"

But a throwaway joke at a meeting - "It's ladies' night at the Mikado." - turned into a whole reimagining of the show. Now the show is set in "retro '60s ladies night at the sing-along Mikado cabaret."

"It cracks it open," Bissett says. "Now it's about watching people perform these songs and well written scenes, and it becomes more of a cabaret act."

David Wallace plays Ko-Ko.

"He's a natural comic," Bissett says. "Ko Ko is a character with anger issues and David can really get a hold of that. If you need someone to scream and stamp his feet and shake his fist at the sky over the unfairness of things, he's someone you can depend on."

Dani Lemon, says the director, is "not a traditional Yum-Yum. That character is usually a quiet, small Japanese girl and Dani is a big, brassy, loud and funny performer with a great operatic voice so she can really sing the hell out of it. When she came in to audition I thought 'That's really interesting again for me.' Why do we have to be bound by what Yum-Yum is supposed to look like?"

Rounding out the leads is Adrian Duncan in the title role.

"He's an older gentleman with a big grey beard. I saw him in the pantomime of Beauty and the Beast this past Christmas and he was the town crier. Near the end, he suddenly breaks out a microphone, and with someone laying some fat beats down, he proceeds to do a whole rap, and then sings a Black-Eyed Peas number while dancing. I had no idea that was in this man, this quiet British fellow who is suddenly tearing it up on stage. So when it came to casting The Mikado, I said 'I know the guy.'"

Juggling a cast and a budget and a classic score is pure fun for Bissett.

"I love that word 'play.' It's why we do it. It fun for them and the audience and it keeps that sense of joy and entertainment."

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