What to say about a telecast of “The Mikado” from 1960 that is now available on a DVD from VAI? It is part of the old Bell Telephone Hour series and crammed into 50 minutes, once commercials are taken out, and two of the lead singers cannot sing Sullivan’s music. Why bother, since it amounts to a series of selections, only five of which are complete?
Groucho Marx as Ko-Ko is the reason for why this disc will be immensely popular—and indeed why I purchased it for my collection. Fulfilling a lifelong ambition, Groucho put his heart, soul, and what little represented his singing voice into the role—and the results are strange.
His “singing” pays little heed to pitch, rhythm, or what the orchestra is playing; and when push comes to shove, he hits a low note of indeterminate value. But of course, that is the point of giving him the role. As with Hyacinth Bucket, a bad voice can be endearing (in Groucho’s case) or very funny (in Patricia Routlege’s case). The strange thing is that his dialogue scenes are simply not funny. Now and then, he breaks into a Charleston or plays with a fan. But for the most part, he seems not sure what to do and gives a straight performance where one expects hilarity.
The other non-singer is English Music Hall veteran Stanley Holloway, who finds his basso role of Pooh-Bah beyond his vocal abilities. Tenor Robert Rounseville (Nanki- Poo) and soprano Barbara Meister (Yum-Yum) make a good pair of lovers, while veteran operetta star Dennis King makes a colorful and full-voiced Mikado.
Another reason to buy this disc is Helen Traubel as the ugly Katisha. Her contralto is a wonder to be heard and she is given her full solo in Act II. Her great scene in Act I is cut entirely, so her “Alone and yet alive” is doubly welcome. The character of Pish-Tush is omitted entirely and his explanatory song “Our Great Mikado” is spoke-sung by Pooh-Bah.
This production was originally telecast in color; but that kinescope has been lost and a black and white one is substituted. But a bonus on this disc is a 12-minute sequence from another Bell Telephone Hour in which Martyn Green appears in highlights from “HMS Pinafore”—and that is in color. Why Green is costumed as a visitor to the Ascot races rather than the “Ruler of the Queen’s Nahvee” is beyond me.