The operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan are probably best taken on in infancy–  and, in fact, generations of fans have done just that since their incarnation in the late 19th century, thereby becoming an integral part of the Brit and (post) colonial culture alike. Often initially discovered via school and amateur productions, the Savoy operas are either loved or loathed. Of course, back in the 1980s attempts to clue in a younger audience were made by including pop singers who could sing the music in productions of the most popular titles including HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado.

The female ensemble. Photograph © Soda Street Productions

This praised production of The Mikado was initially mounted in 2011 in Queensland and has gone on to continued success interstate and in New Zealand. While State Opera South Australia’s cast is all about creating an ensemble, it is ensemble casting at its best. Artistic Director Stuart Maunder has ingeniously updated this perennial favourite to the age of Britney Spears and Taylor Swift complete with pink hair, chunky shoes and stylised athletic gear whilst keeping the often barbed criticism of W.S. Gilbert – for there is as much for contemporary society to learn from him as from his witty protégé, the master of the epigram and perhaps the first ‘pop star’, Oscar Wilde (lampooned by Gilbert in Patience).

A reduced yet always dependable Adelaide Symphony Orchestra provided buoyant support under the baton of the capable Simon Kenway, whilst the far-off and yet often overtly racist presentation of late 19thcentury perceptions of earlier Japan is smoothed over in order to be more palatable for contemporary audiences. Gone is the exotic japonaiserie of Gilbert’s time, to be replaced with the Hello Kitty/Morning Glory pop delights of contemporary culture, which has also permeated our own. Gone are the ‘yellow’ skins of previous productions. Instead, they are played with and replaced by something much more subtle and much needed if this show is to continue to appeal.

Dominic J. Walsh and Byron Coll.  Photograph © Soda Street Productions

Maunder’s Japan is a highly colourful one, one that he has called “Hello Kitty on steroids”. With its tousled wigs and bright colours, this Mikado includes escapades with which a contemporary audience can identify. It’s a production that places the emphasis on fun whilst still honouring Gilbert & Sullivan’s original intentions to parody their society. It places the action in as far off a milieu as possible while Maunder and his associates positively revel in excess.

As previously mentioned, the director has gathered a tight and highly appropriate cast. The leads are all affectingly and clearly sung. Praise must go to Dominic J. Walsh’s Nankie Poo, and Andrew Collis’s highly officious Pooh-Bah with his fitting brogue, which will be talked about for some time. The female leads (Amelia Berry, Charlotte Kelso and Bethany Hill) find just the right level of shyness and flirtatiousness. And, as elsewhere, care and attention has been given to the older and wiser Katisha, performed by Elizabeth Campbell – a character referred to by the director as a ‘cougar’. All in all, this is a very successful G & S production.

The Mikado plays at the Festival Theatre until November 23