The Black Mikado (1975)

The MikadoVal Pringle
Nanki-PooNorman Beaton
Ko-KoDerek Griffiths
Pooh-BahMichael Denison
Pish-TushVernon Nesbeth
Yum-YumPatricia Ebigwei
Pitti-SingFloella Benjamiyn
Peep-BoJenny McGusty
KatishaAnita Tucker

The Mikado, by far Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular work, has often inspired parodies and take-offs. This production of The Black Mikado, dating from 1975, was among them. I have not heard the recording and have only a copy of the record jacket. It credits members of the chorus with such character names as Bird Lady, Bee Lady, Town Clerk, Witch Doctor. I'll bet it's a hoot.

The selections include:

  • "If you want to know who we are"
  • "A wand'ring minstrel I"
  • "Behold the Lord High Executioner"
  • "Three little maids from school"
  • "So please you sir"
  • Finale Act I
  • "The sun whose rays"
  • "Mi-ya sa-ma"
  • "A more humane Mikado"
  • "The criminal cried"
  • "The flowers that bloom in the spring"
  • "Tit-willow"
  • "Alone and yet alive"

Terry Lane provided the following review of this production:

The first thing to be said about The Black Mikado is that it is the sexiest, funniest version of the G and S favourite ever produced. Norman Beaton was [in 1975] a very handsome young Nanki-Poo and Patricia Ebigwei was a heart-stoppingly beautiful Yum-Yum. The sexual tensions that are implicit in the plot were exploited to the full.

The setting of the production is a Caribbean island. All cast members are black, except for Pooh-Bah [the fine English character actor, Michael Denison] who is a minor English colonial official who has over-reached himself. The Titipu Town Band is a mix of black and white musicians who, in the production, sit on the stage under a tropical, palm-thatched rotunda.

The instrumentation gives an indication of what to expect of the arrangements: Trumpet; flugel horn; French horn; alto sax; baritone sax; lead, rhythm, bass and acoustic guitar; keyboards, drums and percussion.

Norman Beaton turns "A Wand'ring Minstrel I" into a plaintive song of sexual longing that sets the tone for what follows. The treatment of Sullivan's music is a sort of amalgam of the original, plus reggae, calypso and rock overtones.

To picture the production you have to imagine that it is set on a tropical island, colonised by the English, where British rectitude, exemplified by the white-suited, pith-helmeted Pooh-Bah, is in tension with the natural, sweaty, sexy exuberance of the locals.

For instance, in the stage production — something that is hinted at in the music itself on the record — the entry of the Three Little Maids [three young women of exceptional beauty] from School was turned into a trio strip routine. The girls arrive from their proper English school, dressed up in uniforms of floor-length tunics, elbow-length gloves and straw boaters. As they come on stage singing of their release from the confines of the lady's seminary they throw off the surplus clothing. The hypocritical Sullivan probably would not have approved. Gilbert would have loved it!

Patricia Ebigwei's version of "The Sun whose rays..." is, in the words of the Gramophone reviewer of this recording, the performance against which all others must now be judged. It is one of those remarkable interpretations that makes all others pale and unsatisfactory by comparison. No G and S lover is unmoved by this sensational piece of music making. Her version is a slow, erotic, languid ballad of vanity and sexual self-satisfaction that makes the conventional renditions seem prissy and just plain silly.

Anita Tucker's Katisha is a woman who is more tragic than ridiculous. Gilbert's plain, middle-aged, unloveable ladies are politically incorrect in this day and age, and Tucker gets it right for our times. She is not so much an ugly predator as an unhappy woman searching for love. Appropriately Derek Griffith's "Tit Willow" is a touching allegory of a mutual attraction between two people who are drawn to each other by what they have in common — not simply two people forced into each other's arms in order to survive and because they cannot do any better.

This is the most human production of The Mikado that I have ever seen. It tends to make all other versions seem misanthropic and misogynist. In this production you actually feel something for the characters.

The Black Mikado was a hot ticket in London in 1975. After finishing its West End season it toured the provincial cities and then disappeared, leaving only the recording of the highlights as a record of its existence. I believe that the record company no longer exists and I cannot find out what might have happened to the original tapes. It would be a tragedy if they were to be lost. My 20 year old LP has only a certain number of plays left in it. Both the production and the recording are worthy of resurrection.

Martin Lewis pointed out that the publisher of this recording, Transatlantic Records, has since gone out of business, and its catalogue purchased Castle Communications, a firm that specializes in mid-price re-issues. Although, as Martin recalls, the album sold moderately well, it was deleted after the show closed.

Issue History
1975 Transatlantic Records Stereo LP TRA 300