There’s something about Gilbert and Sullivan that makes Cuesta College music instructor Marcy Irving smile.
It might be the memorable melodies created by composer Arthur Sullivan, or the hilarious dialogue written by lyricist W.S. Gilbert. It could be the British songwriting duo’s colorful characters and topsy-turvy storylines.
Although steeped in Victorian-era values, “it’s still very funny and accessible” for modern audiences, Irving said.
All those elements are present in “The Mikado,” playing Saturday and Sunday at Cuesta’s Cultural and Performing Arts Center. A tale of forbidden love, secret identities and madcap misadventures set amid the pagodas and palaces of imperial Japan, the comic opera features such favorites as “A wand’ring minstrel, I” and “Three little maids from school are we.”
“The Mikado” is the second Gilbert and Sullivan opera produced by the fledgling Central Coast Gilbert and Sullivan, which was founded by Irving and Cassandra Tarantino, director of Cuesta’s North County Chorus, in 2012. In 2013, “H.M.S. Pinafore” packed the Cultural and Performing Arts Center on two successive nights.
Such a showing “helps you believe in yourself and have the confidence to say, ‘This can happen,’ ” Tarantino said, as well as the confidence to mount a more challenging production. “We need to show to ourselves and the community that … the success of ‘Pinafore’ wasn’t a mistake.’ ”
According to Tarantino, “The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu” tells a story that’s Shakespearean in its scope and Monty Pythonesque in its absurdity.
The opera, which premiered in 1885, revolves around the love triangle between wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo (Doug Hales), maiden Yum-Yum (Ji Yun Choe), and Ko-Ko (Bobby Cleath), the Lord High Executioner of the Mikado, or, emperor.
Yum-Yum is set to marry Ko-Ko — despite her feelings for Nanki-Poo, who is actually the son and heir of the Mikado (Kenneth Hand). He’s traveling in disguise to escape the amorous advances of elderly Katisha (Anna Carey), a lady in his father’s court.
Meanwhile, an edict comes down from the Mikado: An execution must take place in Titipu within a month, or else the town will lose its cherished status.
Ko-Ko, who has been condemned to death for flirting, seems like the obvious choice for beheading — until he points out that would mean killing himself, a capital offense. Then he discovers that Nanki-Poo plans to commit suicide if he can’t be with his beloved.
So Ko-Ko strikes a deal.
He’ll allow Nanki-Poo to marry Yum-Yum as long as his romantic rival promises to be executed after a month. At that point, Ko-Ko will wed the young widow.
Will his plot succeed? With life, death and love at stake, nothing is certain for this threesome.
“It’s funny that an opera about beheading people is funny. This is really about chopping people’s heads off, and it makes you laugh,” observed Irving, who’s directing “The Mikado.”
She’s aided by Tarantino as music director and Jennifer Martin as conductor. Mark Prater designed the production’s lavish sets, while Richard Jackson handled light design and Cynthia Vest, Randon Pool and Rene Rasmussen Leathem designed the colorful costumes.
The cast includes Timothy Cleath as government official Pooh-Bah, Gregg Haueter as his sidekick Pish-Tush, and Irving’s father, Bay Area resident Michael Irving, as noble lord Go-To. Playing Yum-Yum’s two friends are Tarantino as Pitti-Sing and Julia Corbett as Peep-Bo.
“She’s just this flirty, over-the-top, funny teenager home from school,” Tarantino said of Pitti-Sing, describing the character as “a very exaggerated version of a silly side of myself.” “I’m playing her as a cross between Betty Boop and Mae West.”
Noting that most of the “Mikado” cast and crew also participated in “H.M.S. Pinafore,” Tarantino compared this year’s production to a family reunion.
“There’s this nice sense of freedom and camaraderie on the stage,” she said. “There’s a sense of gratitude. … There’s a sense of connection and belonging.
Central Coast Gilbert and Sullivan aims to foster that feeling by giving local performers a chance in the spotlight. Rather than hire outside singers and musicians, she said, “We want to showcase the talent that is right here in this town.”
The company’s ultimate goal is to perform all 13 of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, ranging from classics such as “The Pirates of Penzance” to lesser-known productions such as “Princess Ida” and “The Gondoliers.” Irving and Tarantino have already picked next year’s production: “Iolanthe,” about a group of fairies who find themselves at odds with the British Parliament.
The co-founders hope that, with continued success, “We will gain a good reputation but also trust with the community,” Taratino said. “They can trust that if they come into the theater to see Gilbert and Sullivan, they’ll have a great experience. … (They’ll) leave smiling.”
IF YOU GO
7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday
Cultural and Performing Arts Center, Cuesta College
$12 to $15
546-3198 or www.cpactickets.cuesta.edu
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.