David Wannen can still remember the words of his elementary school principal: “Every child should be exposed to three things: scripture, Shakespeare, and Gilbert and Sullivan.”
Today, Wannen is the managing director of the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, a touring theater company that aims to bring the works of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan to the masses. They’ll perform one of the British songwriting duo’s most popular comic operas, “The Mikado,” on Tuesday in San Luis Obispo.
“ ‘Mikado’ is one of the most-performed pieces of musical theater in history,” Wannen said, along with “H. M.S. Pinafore” and “The Pirates of Penzance.” “There’s something so broad and universal about those pieces. The stories are so truly universally constructed.”
Co-founded by artistic director Albert Bergeret in 1974, the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players spent their early years performing at block parties, street fairs and nursing homes.
“It quickly became Albert’s mission to have a really professional Gilbert and Sullivan company where you really see great New York talent and a full orchestra,” Wannen said.
The company moved indoors in the mid-1970s, hired its first orchestra in 1979 and began touring nationally in 1981. Today, the Players are a tight-knit, talented group that books about 70 performances a year.
“It’s got this great merry band of brothers and sisters feel to it,” Wannen said, noting that the average company member has been there 13 or 14 years.
The company traditionally tours with 24 actors, 17 musicians and a four-member crew.
Although the Players perform Gilbert and Sullivan’s entire repertoire, “The Mikado” remains one of their seasonal staples.
“The show is multiple laughs a minute,” said Wannen, who plays the title character. “It’s very interactive. It’s almost like a sitcom (with) a laugh track.”
The inspiration behind “The Mikado,” depicted in the 1999 film “Topsy- Turvy,” is show business legend.
Gilbert and Sullivan had almost given up hope of a follow-up to 1884’s “Princess Ida,” a relative flop, when Gilbert struck upon an idea capitalizing on the contemporary English craze for all things Japanese. He visited the Japanese Village, a London exhibition showcasing daily life in Japan, and even engaged people from the village to teach his cast about Japanese culture.
“The Mikado,” which debuted in March 1885, takes place in the fictional Japanese town of Titipu.
Wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo has fallen in love with Yum-Yum, the young, beautiful ward of Ko-Ko, a “cheap tailor” turned Lord High Executioner. But as bureaucrat Pooh-Bah informs him, Ko-Ko intends to marry Yum-Yum himself.
Nanki Poo then reveals that he is the son of the Mikado. He’s been traveling in disguise to avoid the amorous advances of Katisha, an elderly lady of the court who proudly refers to herself as the emperor’s “daughter-in-law elect.”
An exotic romantic comedy that doubles as a satire of British society, “The Mikado” features some of musical theater’s most familiar songs — including “A wanderin’ minstrel I” and “Three little maids from school are we.”
According to Wannen, the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players tries to put their own uniquely American flair on what many consider to be quintessentially English entertainment.
“We don’t believe that these pieces are intended to be stodgy museum pieces from the 1880s,” he said. “What we do is bring these shows alive for audiences.”
One of the ways the company enlivens performances is by inserting topical references into particular songs. In “The Mikado,” musical numbers might contain updated jokes about “American Idol,” the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the tea party movement.
Wannen said the Players are simply following in Gilbert and Sullivan’s footsteps.
“Gilbert was very into making fun of anyone who takes themselves too seriously,” the managing director said, adding that the librettist was known to tweak his lyrics for a particular audience.
“It’s such rich material and you get so much out of it,” Wannen said.