'Hot Mikado' offers cuteness, but its sizzle is spotty

June 03, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Eight years ago Ford's Theatre in Washington premiered a jazzed-up version of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Mikado." Now "Hot Mikado" is back after being retooled in Chicago. Ford's just extended its run into July, and sometime before the end of the year, it's expected to move to Broadway.

So, how hot is "Hot Mikado"? Well, its title is reheated; a 1939 Broadway production starring Bill "Bojangles" Robinson went by the same moniker. As to its sound, Rob Bowman's 1940s swing-era musical arrangements have a syncopated sass not found in Arthur Sullivan's originals. In fact, some of Bowman's arrangements take so many liberties, it's difficult to recognize Sullivan's melodies.

"Three Little Maids" is sung in Andrews Sisters-style harmony; "For He's Gonna Marry Yum-Yum" is a gospel number, and it's followed by a bluesy torch song.

In contrast, except for a few updated references -- most of them sillier than they are witty -- the libretto, adapted by director/choreographer David H. Bell, sticks closely to W. S. Gilbert's plot about two pairs of mismatched lovers.

Granted, the characters are obviously American -- not only in their speech and mannerisms, but also in their dress. Costume designer Jess Goldstein clothes the men in jewel-colored zoot suits and the women in kicky knee-length dresses. Bell explains this seeming incongruity with a joke. Handed an official document, Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, exclaims: "It's in Japanese!" Then, after a head-scratching moment, he remembers, "We are Japanese." (Later the Mikado himself pulls the same stunt.)

Most of the principal actors seem to have been cast for specific, instead of overall, talents. The exception is Ross Lehman, who makes a thoroughly engaging Ko-Ko. A rubber-limbed nerd with a slight resemblance to Phil Silvers, he's an executioner who'd be more of a menace to himself than to the condemned.

As the Mikado, Lawrence Hamilton, reprising his 1986 role, was clearly hired for his tap-dancing skills. Similarly, Robin Baxter's Pitti-Sing -- one of those "three little maids" -- is here because she can belt a song.

Baxter faces tough competition in this area from Loretta Devine as Katisha, the overbearing older woman who winds up "cuckoo for Ko-Ko," as she puts it. Devine was one of Michael Bennett's original "Dreamgirls." But instead of the smooth harmony of that Supremes-style group, her delivery of Katisha's opening number sounds like that of fellow "Dreamgirls' " alum, Jennifer Holliday -- the rafter-blasting singer who played the trio's outcast.

As to the "Mikado's" other pair of lovers, despite their prominence in the plot, they are hardly the operetta's most colorful characters. Ben Wright's Nanki-Poo -- the Mikado's disguised son -- comes across as an all-American boy (in Japan, of course). And Susan Moniz is a cute, Betty Boop-like Yum-Yum.

For that matter, cuteness is "Hot Mikado's" chief characteristic. This is partly due to Bell's handling of the libretto. Tossing in the words "Benihana," "teriyaki" and "saki" is far from the skewering satire for which Gilbert was known. Even the oft-parodied "I've Got a Little List" receives only mild modern touches.

Combined with performances whose sizzle is spotty, the result may be a diverting evening in Washington or Chicago -- and it might be similarly diverting off-Broadway -- but as a full-blown Broadway musical this "Hot Mikado" feels lukewarm.

"Hot Mikado"

Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth St. N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, with matinees at 1 p.m. Thursdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Through July 24

Tickets: $23-$34

Call: (202) 347-4833

** 1/2

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