Meister, Traubel; King, Rounseville, Marx, Holloway. VAI 4554, black and white, 52 mins. (main program), 46 mins. (bonus)
The Groucho Marx portrayal of Ko-Ko in The Mikado, courtesy of the Bell Telephone Hour, is not quite what it might have been. I vividly remember seeing it in color back in 1960, but unfortunately this transcription is in black and white. The "producer" was Martyn Green, stalwart of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company for many years, and the director was Norman Campbell, who produced a lot of G&S in Canada, and who obviously deferred (perhaps too much) to Green's expertise on this occasion.
We get more of Green than Groucho, who seems to be channeling his producer's famed interpretation of the role almost exactly. The likeness even extends to the costume, which resembles the outfit Green wore in the '30s (designed by Charles Ricketts in the 1920s) and in the 1938 British film of The Mikado.
But there are certain happy Groucho-isms that come through. First of all, the accent is very much New York, and this makes for a fun change from all the British interpreters of the role. His performance of "I've Got a Little List" is filled with facial and bodily descriptions of the culprits named in the song. He dances, up to a point, in "Here's A Howdy-Do" (just as Green did — a sort of Charleston). The "Tit-Willow" is affecting, though I wish Groucho could have had more fun with the song, as many German and British singers did before Green decided it was tragic.
His scenes with Helen Traubel's Katisha are most effective. She doesn't sing like a true contralto, but her acting and her command are thoroughly entertaining, especially in her "Alone and Yet Alive" and her "Hearts Do Not Break." Traubel's scenes in the climactic Verdian Act I finale are entirely cut, to the decided detriment of the plot.
There are cuts in virtually every number, except for "Three Little Maids from School" and "The Sun Whose Rays," which is sung at too fast a clip. "A Wand'ring Minstrel I" is shorn of a verse for Robert Rounseville, who sings very well, and the "Kiss Duet" is also missing its central portion. But that's what happens when you cram a two-and-a-half-hour operetta into fifty minutes.
The cast is rather endearing, right up through Dennis King's very crisp Mikado. Stanley Holloway is an excellent Pooh-Bah (with unfortunate makeup), Yum-Yum is Barbara Meister (in fine voice), whom I remember from City Opera, and Melinda Marx, Groucho's daughter, is Peep-Bo. There is no Pish-Tush; Holloway gives a slice of his song. For some reason, the chorus does not sing the opening number until the end.
There are bonus tracks, including a Bell Telephone Hour condensation of H.M.S. Pinafore, in color, with Martyn Green as Sir Joseph Porter. This comprises mostly Green's numbers, with "Never Mind The Why and Wherefore" given endless reprises. Green, customarily, supplies excellent diction and fine acting. There is also a reminiscence of the Mikado production, with Dick Cavett, a lifelong admirer of Groucho.
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