Ask any high-school theater geek, and they'll have heard of Gilbert and Sullivan. Ask me, I was one. But amazingly, I graduated high school and went all through college without once seeing one of their plays or hearing any of the songs.
All of that changed when I attended a rehearsal for The Mikado, performed by the Durham Savoyards. Founded in 1963, the troupe is dedicated to performing solely Gilbert and Sullivan standards. While they rotate through a number of titles, they return to the more popular ones more frequently.
This outing marks director Derrick Ivey's second time helming the opera. His first time directing for the Savoyards occurred in 2003, when he directed a different version of The Mikado.
"The one we did in 2003 was a really radical re-visioning. It was a modern setting, and we had a huge back story," Ivey says, noting that the text and music remained unchanged. The modern characters then stepped into the Japanese story after the choreographed overture, creating a layered story-within-a-story effect. That production was the last time the Savoyards performed the opera.
Though the Savoyards only have one large performance each year, they make sure to do it in style. Sarah Nevill, one of the show's producers, says that the group has sold more tickets than at this point last year. As far as Nevill knows, no other group like the Savoyards exists in North Carolina.
A technical rehearsal was underway during my visit; as I walked through the Carolina Theatre's backstage corridors, cast and crew bustled about, absorbed in their preparations. A peek into the makeup rooms revealed actors getting their faces brushed with white paste to simulate Japanese Kabuki-style makeup. Actors padded around the halls in dressing gowns, with hair held in caps to aid in wearing wigs later. Orchestra members tuned up in the pit the cast's first full-dress rehearsal (involving not only costumes, but also make-up and wigs).
The plot of The Mikado deals with the pompous Ko-Ko, a commoner who's attained the highest rank a citizen can achieve: executioner. He's planning to marry his ward Yum-Yum, a beautiful girl who falls in love with Nanki-Poo, a mysterious musician. The comic opera debuted in 1885, when Britain's pursuit of Asian imperialism whetted the country's appetite for anything "exotic."
Richard Palmer plays the title character, the distinguished Japanese ruler. A Duke chemistry professor by day, this is his third production with Savoyards, and his first large role. "[It's] taking awhile to nail the dialogue," Palmer says.
Kate Farrar lends some abrasive comedy as Katisha, a cougarish woman past her prime sporting a garish ensemble and Divine-esque eyebrows. Farrar studied vocal performance at UNC-Greensboro, and had actually played the same role at her school's opera theater. One of her character's signature moments arrives in the second act when she performs a fan dance while teetering on sky-high platforms.
"These are my shoes. I do an elaborate dance with Ko-Ko as part of our love duet," Farrar said, holding up a pair of platfoms that, on first glance, look more at home on disco tiles. She says she hasn't taken a spill while rehearsing in them.
"I bought a pair at the Rugged Warehouse [to practice] before we got these about a month ago. [They had] little Playboy bunnies on them," Farrar says.
Newcomer Stuart Albert snagged the role of Ko-Ko, whose title of Lord High Executioner of Titipu he described as "an overly elaborate title for a rather puny man." One painted eyebrow noticeably raised over the other denotes his character's blustery approach to his situation.
"I still kind of can't believe it. It has been [a challenge] because I don't read music," Albert says. This performance is his first with the Savoyards, and also the first time he's trodden the boards in 18 years.
"It's a wonderful cast. We've got very rigorous rehearsals," Albert says.