'Hot Mikado' Swings Gilbert & Sullivan
Directed by Kate Warner, Musical Direction by Todd C. Gordon, Choreography by Kelli Edwards, Scenic Design by Janie Howland, Costume Design by Frances Nelson McSherry, Lighting Design by Franklin Meissner Jr., Sound Design by David Remedios, Properties Design by Lauren L. Duffy, Production Stage Manager Amy Weissenstein, Assistant Stage Manager Emily Page, Assistant Choreographer Jeremy Towle
New Repertory Theatre closes out Artistic Director Kate Warner's inaugural season on a high note with Hot Mikado, a jazz-inflected adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan's beloved opera, with Musical Direction by Todd C. Gordon and Choreography by Kelli Edwards. A cadre of Boston's talented, young performers makes up the cast of this high energy musical comedy set in the 1940s in the mythical town of Titipu, Japan.
You might recall the story, but you haven't seen or heard it quite like this before. David H. Bell and Rob Bowman created this version in 1986, based on a 1939 Broadway production which improved upon the 1938 all-Black operetta, The Swing Mikado. By employing multi-cultural casting, Warner makes the show accessible to a broad audience and reaps the benefits of greater diversity on the stage. Men in fedoras and colorful zoot suits, adorned with knee-length watch chains, and women in pastel shirtwaist dresses with flared skirts dancing the Jitterbug and Lindy Hop raise the temperature of the musical numbers to give this show its sizzle. Of course, it helps to have a company full of accomplished singers and dancers.
Possessing two of the fine voices, Cheo Bourne (Nanki-Poo) and McCaela Donovan (Yum-Yum) are an appealing duo as the star-crossed lovers who seem to be foiled at every turn. Disguised as a wandering minstrel to hide his identity as the son of the powerful Mikado (Kennedy Reilly-Pugh), Nanki-Poo is on the run from Katisha (Lisa Yuen), an older woman who wishes to marry him. He loves Yum-Yum, but she is slated to marry her guardian Ko-Ko (Calvin Braxton), the Lord High Executioner, who must find a subject to behead within a month, or be beheaded himself. His right hand man Pooh-Bah (Edward M. Barker), Lord High "Everything Else," recommends several schemes to solve the conundrum, but each must pass muster with one of the local authorities -- all of whom happen to be him. Fun and laughter follow as everyone works together to outsmart the Mikado, while crafting happy endings for all.
Braxton is a joy to watch for his comic nervousness, as well as to hear for his mellow, opera-trained voice. Barker brings his strong vocals and just the right mix of self-puffery and deference to the role of Pooh-Bah. Yuen, who was in the original Broadway and Off-Broadway casts of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is both funny and strong as the woman scorned, and plucks at the heartstrings in "Alone and Yet Alive," a pretty torch song lamenting her lost love. Reilly-Pugh's title character doesn't appear until the middle of the second act, but he makes a splash with his regal attire and bearing.
New Rep regulars Aimee Doherty (Pitti-Sing) and Michele A. DeLuca (Peep-Bo) are Yum-Yum's sisters and together they make up the Three Little Maids. When the trio sings their introductory song, their close harmony brings to mind The Andrews Sisters. Doherty and Yuen trade high-powered vocal belts when Katisha makes her unwelcome entrance, and DeLuca shows off her pipes and some fancy footwork in "Swing a Merry Madrigal" with Donovan, Bourne, and Jordan Ahnquist (Pish-Tush). Ahnquist and David Costa (Gentleman of Japan) blend their voices harmonically with Barker to complete the male trio. Alaina Fragoso (Lady of Japan) rounds out the ensemble.
Janie Howland's scenic design evokes Japan with a flowering tree adjacent to a pond and arched footbridge, and three decorative set pieces upstage with cutouts that reveal the orchestra. Gordon on piano and his five musicians wear kimono jackets to blend in with the setting, but their visibility adds to the revelry during the big ensemble numbers, especially the finales of each act that take on the tone of a raucous prayer meeting. The 1940s costumes by Frances Nelson McSherry are striking, especially because they are not in the traditional style of The Mikado with a few exceptions. Franklin Meissner, Jr. lights everything well, and adds artistic quality to Yum-Yum's paean to herself in "The Sun and I."
With a cast comprised of Caucasians and African-Americans (besides Yuen), they get a few laughs each time the script requires them to state that they are Japanese, but that degree of silliness does not need to be repeated. The actors do a good job delivering the eye rolls, the tongue-in-cheek lines, and going over the top, when called for, but a little goes a long way. Hot Mikado is at its best during the musical numbers when Edwards' choreography and Gordon's gang keep the joint jumping. If you like your characters colorful and your music snazzy, boogie over to the Arsenal Center for the Arts; there's a lot to like in New Rep's Titipu.
Photo: The cast of The Mikado [Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures]