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Voices, Feet And The Beat Reign Supreme In Oakbrook's 'Hot Mikado'

In the spring of 1939, two musical adaptations of Gilbert and Sullivan's 1885 music theater masterpiece "The Mikado" opened on Broadway. One, which had originated in Chicago, was called "The Swing Mikado." The other, which producer Mike Todd created when he was prevented from producing "The Swing Mikado" himself, was called "The Hot Mikado." Both shows featured all black casts performing then-current swing, blues and big band versions of the original English Victorian score, but neither was a Main Stem hit. However, "Hot Mikado," which starred Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, transferred to the 1939 New York World's Fair, and ran two years. The story of the dueling concept productions began the stuff of theater legend. 

And what of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" itself? It continued its virtual non-stop run on stages everyone in the world, and in fact will be mounted here this very Christmas season at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, staged by Chicago and Broadway ("The Color Purple") director Gary Griffin. You know "The Mikado"... with songs like "A Wandering Minstrel, I," "I've Got A Little List," "Three Little Maids From School," "The Moon And I" and "Tit Willow." Legendary stuff, with characters like Nanki-Poo, Ko-Ko, Yum-Yum, Katisha and (lest we forget) Peep-Bo. Satire on English manners and morals of the 1880s, set in Japan just for the subversive heck of it. So far, so good. 

In 1986, director-choreographer David H. Bell found himself as the Artistic Director of the historic Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. Knowing about the 1939 productions, he announced "Hot Mikado" as part of the theater's upcoming season, only to discover that almost nothing of Mike Todd's "Hot" show had survived (the same was true of "Swing). So, with young musical director Rob Bowman, they created from scratch a show called "Hot Mikado," which has subsequently been performed in London, Prague and elsewhere, including two productions at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. They rewrote some lines and kept many others, jazzed and swung and bluesed up the music, and gave it all over to multi-racial casts. 

Fast forward to today, and Bowman is conducting "A Little Night Music" on Broadway, now starring Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. And Bell (now the head of the Music Theatre program at Northwestern University), has directed and choreographed "Hot Mikado" for the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook, which opened last Wednesday and will run through October 3, 2010. 

The swing, jazz and (especially) tap dancing is amazing here--truly top notch. When dancers turned choreographers Tommy Rapley and Tammy Mader are merely featured chorus performers, you know the level of dance expected of everyone is high, and this cast delivers. (Rapley shows a great voice too, in an unexpected twist.) And top-billed Ted Louis Levy, giving as close to a star dance performance as Chicago has seen in some time, plays the title character of The Mikado with a cool, assured and audience-engaging slyness that is matched only by the rapid-fire work of his Gregory Hines and Savion Glover-like feet (Levy worked with both men on Broadway, and collaborated on the  choreography of the Broadway hit "Jelly's Last Jam"). If you enjoy that kind of "down in the floor" hardcore tap (not the lighter-than-air kind that Hollywood espoused) you will never forgive yourself if you don't catch the second act of this production. Seriously. You will be schooled. 

Andy Lupp, who earlier this year danced so entrancingly at the Marriott in "The Drowsy Chaperone," does it again here in the choral leading role of Pish-Tush, and the entire ensemble flashes, sasses, kicks and cavorts its way through some exciting dance sequences. The six-person orchestra (lead by the droll and game Jeremy Kahn, and musical directed by Michael Mahler with music coordination by Carey Deadman) cracks, snaps and pops its way through the syncopated and strutting swing rhythms and blues licks of the adapted score. Your toes will tap and your heads will bob in response! 

There's pretty good singing going on too, from Devin DeSantis as young lover Nanki-Poo and from his intended, the Yum-Yum of multiple Jeff Award-winner Summer Naomi Smart. As Katisha, the older woman spurned by Nank-Poo, AureLia Williams unleashes her bluesy and hilarious voice to great effect. Julia Black as Peep-Bo and the astonishing Susan Moniz as Pitti-Sing ably lead the vocals of the Women's Ensemble, and three Band Singers (Kent Haina, Nate Lewellyn and Tiffany Trainer) bulk up the ensemble's climactic sounds when everyone is out of breath from all that athletic dancing. 

The comedy and well, the overall effect of the show are, unfortunately, less effective. Todd M. Kryger as Pooh-Bah is saddled with a lot of expository dialogue and humor which just doesn't really get off the ground. Even the comic genius of the too-young Stephen Schellhardt as Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko (he of the little list, the young and pretty ward and the snicker-snee) doesn't come to full flower until very near the end, when he knocks "Tit Willow" out of the ballpark with physical comedy and timing that brings the show to a great climax. Much of the first act, however, sits a little too still, waiting for the next dance number or set of vocal fireworks. 

The concept of the show isn't my favorite either, I'm afraid. When originally updated in the 1930s, the show was contemporary. Now, it's a show moved from one time period to another in what fees like random fashion, neither of which bears a resemblance to today. In the G&S original, everbody acts English and looks Japanese, and the comedy works. Now, everybody acts English (without accents), looks American and says they are Japanese. Huh? I finally decided to stop worrying about the plot and characters and situations, and just let the absurdist nature of this trichotomy wash over me. It left me a little puzzled, I must admit. The mind ponders, but I don't think is quite understands. Better leave everything to the music and the dancing, which is the reason for the production anyway. If you want the story, after all, just do "The Mikado!" 

Physically, this production looks great. The costumes by young Jeremy W. Floyd look sensational and move with ease. Jesse Klug's learned lighting lends a storybook flair to the proceedings. Marcus Stephens designed a set that is a fabulous Japanese-cum-art deco playground, with levels and areas and room to boogie-woogie (or was that the jitterbug?). Wigs by Kaity Licina, props by Matt Cummings and sound by Cecil Averett were all spot on. 

So then, how to summarize? If you love "The Mikado," the music of the late 30s and early 40s, tap and swing dance and all such heat and flash, then "Hot Mikado" is probably for you. If you are looking for a funny story told in a creative and tuneful way, you may be a bit disappointed. The elements just didn't jell for me as exciting musical theater. There were moments, yes (a lot of them), but they were in service of a bit of droll confusion. But, for Ted Louis Levy's dancing, the exuberance of the talented ensemble, the duet work of Smart-DeSantis and Schellhardt-Williams, and a great-looking, topsy-turvy zoot suit universe, go and see for yourself. Gilbert and Sullivan can take it. And the opening night crowd loved it. I'm interested to know what you think. 

"Hot Mikado" plays Wednesdays through Sundays at the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois, now through October 3rd. Tickets are $31-$45. Call 630-530-0111 or visit www.drurylaneoakbrook.com  

Photos of Ted Louis Levy and AureLia Williams by Brett Beiner.

 

 


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From This Author Paul W. Thompson

Paul W. Thompson, a contributor to BroadwayWorld.com since 2007, is a Chicago-based singer, actor, musical director, pianist, vocal coach, composer and commentator. His career as (read more...)