Arthur Sullivan, it's said, had grown tired of the farcical nature of the comic operas he scored for W. S. Gilbert before the pair reconciled in 1885 to stage The Mikado. If only he had seen Simon Gallaher's latest production now loudly stomping the boards of the Lyric Theatre in Brisbane. Gallaher has the fairly remarkable ability to make Gilbert and Sullivan even sillier. His latest crack at the Japanese-inspired Mikado is a riot.
But then, the works of Arthur and W.G. were always pop musicals of their time. That Gallaher's Mikado is so unashamedly pop is in the grandest traditions of the famed Savoy duo.
We're talking an Umbilical brother, a Lano (of Woodley fame), an obligatory reality TV star, and a Mel and Kochie joke within the first five minutes. Minus Myf, it's next week's panel on Spicks and Specks.
Oh no, there's nothing subtle about this. Roll up kids, this one's for you.
The last time Gilbert and Sullivan came to Brisbane, in Pirates of Penzance, it was carried by the trained and tuned voices of David Hobson, Anthony Warlow and the Opera Australia chorus. Those expecting something similar would have walked out before intermission. Gallaher has torn up the score and let his cast scat their way through.
In fact, the show bares more resemblance to the Lano and Woodley finale on the same stage in 2006. If David Collins, one half of the Umbilical Brothers, was auditioning for the part of Woodley alongside Colin Lane he passed with flying colours.
Lane performs his usual silly straight man shtick as the ubiquitous Pooh-Bah, the town of Titipu's bureaucratic everyman, the perfect foil for Collins' rubbery, child-like Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, naturally complete with mime and sound effects. But who knew Collins could sing? He out-shines Lane with an impressive register.
It's the self-deprecating humour that wins the biggest laughs. "Mime comedy is overrated," Lane declares in one of many deviations from the score. "At least we're still together," Collins shoots back. It's probably all in the script, cleverly updated by Melvin Morrow, but it has all the freshness of a bit of improv riffing by two very good, very experienced comics.
Gallaher was never going to deny this audience what it came to see. As the curtain rises, in leaps the wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo into an extended dance sequence. Graeme Isakko, apparently, had girls texting votes by the thousands in So You Think You Can Dance earlier this year.
For what it's worth, Isaako, a graduate of playing Oliver as a 13 year old, can actually sing, even if it is in that sickly-sweet, pantomime sort of way that would make him a shoe-in for an Australian version of High School Musical. Battling for the affections of Yum-Yum (accomplished opera performer Helen Donaldson, who isn't afraid of a bit of silly herself), the pair make quite the Disney-manufactured couple. If nothing else, they deserve credit for keeping a straight face throughout.
Particularly in the finale of act one, when none other than National Living Treasure Julie Anthony plods down the staircase to ham it up as ice queen Katisha, belting it out with all the fire and brimstone she never injects into the National Anthem (and more's the pity). Dressed outrageously in lavish coat and spiked head-dress, berating the bumbling Lane and Collins, it's an inherently funny sight.
Add veteran Gallaher company tenor David Gould as the title character, the crisp harmonies of vocal trio the Absolutely Fabulettes as the somewhat sexy three little maids, a chorus of buff young men in back-up, accompanied by a swinging six-piece band under Kevin Hocking's baton that seamlessly melds the traditional score with jazzed-up additions, and you have a cast that, happily, are all in on the joke.
The plot hardly matters. Certainly not for the likes of Lane and Collins, who along with Gould contributed to the script and use it as a mere springboard to launch into some impeccably timed shtick fans of both will instantly recognise.
And yet, it has to be said, the cavernous Lyric Theatre was embarrassingly more than half empty for this Saturday night performance. Despite Gallaher's best intentions, the kids, perhaps, are still preoccupied with their iPods and interwebs.
It's a shame, because Brisbane hasn't seen a sillier, or funnier, musical at the Lyric since Mel Brooks' The Producers.
Essgee Entertainment presents
Venue: Lyric Theatre, QPAC
Season: From 5 August for a limited season.
Times: Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm; Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday, 1.30pm, Sunday 2pm.
Tickets: Children from $39; Adults from $49.95
Bookings: 136 246 or qtix.com.au