THE MIKADO: Well, It IS in the Public Domain …

Cáitlín Burke and Ensemble Finale Act I 2

If you wanted to know who they were, they weren’t gentlemen of Japan, but of England.

Theatergoers weren’t immediately in Titipu when the curtain rose on The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ recent production of THE MIKADO. Director and choreographer David Auxier-Loyola had decided to bring up the curtain on a prologue that was set in the D’Oyly Carte offices. There the two illustrious collaborators were at an impasse over their next project.

Two Richards — their producer D’Oyly Carte and their esteemed leading man Temple – pointed out that England was then experiencing a period when anything Japanese was in vogue. That started librettist-lyricist Gilbert thinking – and stagehands taking us to that fictional Japanese village.

As Gilbert created the show in his head, he saw himself as the lord he’d call Pish-Tush. He cast Temple as The Mikado – the actual role that the star did in fact originate in 1885; Sullivan as Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner and D’Oyly Carte as Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else.

We’ll never know how many audience members either said of this prologue “Oh, this is interesting! The things I’m learning today!” or “Get on with the actual show, will you?!”

Another surprise came when this Titipu wasn’t populated with genuine Asians. Yet attendees could have given their forbearance at the Caucasian chorus, for this was, remember, Gilbert’s casting of the show. In reality, he’d undoubtedly either choose British singers he knew and/or ones with whom he’d previously worked.

That could explain, too, why the chorus members weren’t costumed in the usual Nipponese garb. One wore an outfit that was sheer Sherlock Holmes while another who was clad in virtual rags could have just dropped in from a production of THE BEGGAR’S OPERA.

Nevertheless, a case could have been made that Gilbert was just experimenting with various thoughts and none would be in the actual production of THE MIKADO he’d eventually write and see produced. He controlled the action; with a snap of his fingers, lights went on and off.

For the next five numbers, Auxier-Loyola gave us business as usual. Adding to the worth was that Sarah Caldwell Smith was an enchanting Yum-Yum and John Charles McLaughlin a suave Nanki-Poo.

Later, when Smith had Yum-Yum brag about her beauty, many theatergoers must have nodded in agreement. McLaughlin also performed well in that song that always gets spurts of laughter from junior-high school boys: “Willow, Tit-Willow.”

Although Gilbert and Sullivan of course made their reputation for the work they did off-stage, the knowing-eyed David Macaluso put forth the theory that the composer could have been an amazing Ko-Ko, too. The same could have been said of lyricist Gilbert’s Pish-Tush – played, as the program informed us, by David Auxier.

Yes, he was the same guy as the director-choreographer. He apparently drops the Loyola when performing.

So all went along well until “And Some Day It May Happen.” This song should logically be called “I’ve Got a Little List,” but Gilbert liked to choose the first line as his title and not the lyric that’s repeated the most, as virtually all songwriters have.

(Imagine Sondheim calling a certain song “Isn’t It Rich?”)

Alas, although Macaluso expertly maneuvered through the patter, here’s where Auxier-Loyola’s Concept (yes, with a capital “C”) all came tumbling down. For he replaced Gilbert’s lyrics with his own. SO we heard OMG, ROFL, hashtag, CATS (the new movie, natch) and a reference to the fifth United States president to lose the popular vote.

But to say the least, the Gilbert of the late 1880s couldn’t have known these names, terms and acronyms. Sure, he was a master at coming up with funny lyrics, but he was no mystic. Auxier-Loyola should have known he couldn’t have it both ways; you’re either in the timeframe when G&S started to write the operetta or you’re in the here and now.

Granted, many, many lyricists have updated Gilbert’s then-topical and now-obsolete lyrics when the show is now performed. That’s become par for the musical course. But chances are that none of those productions established that the time was 1884 England when their curtains went up.

The director did get the appropriate amount of dry humor from everyone. Gilbert loved to spoof British men and women being unflappable and maintaining their dignity under difficult circumstances and in the face of impending disasters. The cast even maintained an erudite tone when discussing capital punishment – a big Act Two issue that would scare the stuffing out of most of us.

Along the way, Auxier-Loyola had obviously encouraged Matthew Wages to go way over-the-top as Pooh-Bah. We got the impression, however, that Wages was all too happy to take the prissy-sissy journey.

Costume designer Quinto Ott reminded us that this was a time when brides’ trains emerged from their headpieces and not from their waists. Although that initial motley group of Titipu costumes suggested we’d only see ragtag duds for the entire evening, Ott produced the luxurious dresses we’d expect befitting three little maids, other schoolgirls and (presumably) schoolmarms.

What was utterly traditional was the wondrous, clam-free orchestra extraordinarily conducted by Albert Bergeret. Hearing the Overture before learning Auxier-Loyola’s Concept was a treat. Those who didn’t know it may have been surprised to find an Overture that didn’t start with booming Taiko drumming to immediately inform them they’d soon be in Japan. Instead, the piece has always offered lovely, tranquil and pastoral sounds.

(Late 19th century entertainments didn’t feel the need to excite the crowd with snazziness before the curtain went up.)

Bergeret took to the stage before the show to state that this is NYGASP’s 45th season. Those of us who saw the troupe in its early days would now be hard-pressed to believe it’s the same company. In those days, you’d see a performer on stage, check his playbill bio and expect to see it conclude with “By day, he can be found working at …” True, some cast members had to do that amateurish quick lick-of-the-lips before launching into song, but by and very large, consummate pros were far more in evidence.

And yet, Auxier-Loyola wasn’t satisfied to use anachronisms only once. Act Two brought “A More Humane Mikado” – again, a first-line title; “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime” is what many must assume is its actual name. David Wannen did it skillfully despite having to make references to cellophane and Botox.

If Auxier-Loyola finds these criticisms hard to take, well, let the punishment fit the crime.