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Victorian Tastes on Blue-Collar Budget


The set for Kent Johnson's pocket version of "The Mikado" was scavenged, in part, from a couple of backyards--his and his neighbor's.

The production at the 54-seat Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills is budgeted at no more than $750, according to Oanh Nguyen, the theater's executive producer. This is Gilbert and Sullivan on a shoestring.

But Nguyen and Johnson, a director of musicals on the local community theater scene for 35 years, hope their low-glitz "Mikado" will enjoy box office topspin from "Topsy-Turvy," the current film about Gilbert and Sullivan that includes lavishly mounted scenes from the same play.

The film is about William Schwenk Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the turbulent writer-composer team that dominated the theater in late-Victorian England. In wide release since January, the film has received four Academy Award nominations--for best original screenplay, along with three categories reflecting the dazzling look of the musical scenes: art direction, costumes and makeup.

Also seeking a "Topsy-Turvy" bounce is Joshua Carr, artistic director of Main Street Players in Santa Ana, whose production of "The Pirates of Penzance," another flagship work by Gilbert and Sullivan, opens tonight. It's a matter of luck that the two Gilbert and Sullivan plays coincide with "Topsy-Turvy." The year-old Chance and the 20-year-old Main Street Players, based in a 250-seat church hall, scheduled the plays last year without knowing a film was in the works.

"There is no question that 'Topsy-Turvy' is giving Gilbert and Sullivan operas far more exposure than they have had in many years," said Jim Farron, curator of the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive Web site. Farron said it is impossible to quantify the impact on theatrical productions as yet.

"The Mikado" is a silly but scrumptiously clever and musically alluring spoof of autocrats and bureaucrats. Though nominally set in 19th century Japan, it isn't concerned with historical or narrative realism; it exists to make light of universal foibles--especially the egotism, rigidity and self-serving instincts of the powerful.

"The Mikado" at the Chance played to about half-filled houses on an opening weekend marred by miserable weather, said company partner Chris Ceballos. Opening night featured a hailstorm before curtain time. Some who braved the elements told Johnson they had seen and liked "Topsy-Turvy."

"I can't say for sure they came because of 'Topsy-Turvy.' The people who see it are often fans of Gilbert and Sullivan to start with. It's a wonderful movie--I've seen it twice. The Victorian sets were beautifully crafted and detailed."

Key elements of the set for Johnson's "Mikado" were culled from the outdoors of Orange County suburbia. The production's long, Japanese-style foot bridge usually spans the koi pond in the director's Los Alamitos backyard. Johnson got it from a production of "The Music Man" years ago at the Huntington Beach Playhouse.

"It was too big for them to store, so they gave it to me," he said.

Also prominent in the set are tall bamboo stalks--decor that Johnson scavenged from a neighbor who was trimming his trees. "The beautiful leaves have fallen off. I had to make new green leaves and glue them on," Johnson said.

He also supplied many of the costumes and props needed for the play, having bought them from the Newport Theatre Arts Center, where he directed "The Mikado" years ago.

Johnson fell for Gilbert and Sullivan in 1946, as a freshman at a Chicago high school singing in the chorus of "The Sorcerer." By his senior year, he was playing Nanki-poo, the male romantic lead in "The Mikado."

After a job transfer to Orange County 35 years ago, Johnson became a regular on the local theater scene. He has directed dozens of plays in community theaters, with credits ranging from "Amadeus" and "Man of La Mancha" at the Huntington Beach Playhouse, to "West Side Story" in Westminster and "Brigadoon" in Brea.

The role he knows best is Benjamin Franklin--a character he has played for a living for the past 10 years at the International Printing Museum in Carson.

"The owner hired me on the basis that I fit the costume," Johnson said. "He didn't know if I could act or write or anything else. I began to research Franklin like crazy. I've read 15 books on him now and become a pretty decent authority"--able to answer questions after his one-man shows at the museum and at Southland middle and elementary schools.

At 67, Johnson plans to hang up his Colonial garb this year to concentrate on acting, directing and playwriting.

Though 31 years younger than Johnson, Joshua Carr is also a tested veteran on the boards. While growing up in Texas, he started acting at age 8 and directed his first show at 14. For the past 15 years he has been based in Orange County, joining partner Ray Limon to produce musicals, primarily in San Diego County, but also in Florida, Texas and Washington.

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