The Emperor of Swing

"I'm an acquired taste," sings Nanki-Poo's would-be bride, Katisha, "and I'm educating his palate." The same might be said of the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, whose oh-so-English-whimsy The Mikado receives an invigorating American update in Theatre Under the Stars' current production of Hot Mikado. This big-band, neo-Mikado is the collaboration of David H. Bell, Rob Bowman and Frankie Hewitt, of D.C.'s Ford Theatre, where this production premiered. They have transposed the original's fantastical, kitsch-Victorian notion of a Japanese court to a fantastical, kitsch-'40s notion of a Japanese court. Since either "Japan" is closer to Oz than Osaka, surprisingly little is lost in the translation, and there's a palate-educating flavor from the mixing of swing-era high style with Victorian gentility. Style is grace with flair, and both eras thrived on the combination.

Recounting the plot of The Mikado is a bit like interpreting Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky"; the more fool you for trying. There's a prince-in-disguise under sentence of death; there's a Lord High Executioner who can't stand the thought of blood; there's a harridan pursuing the prince as the prince pursues a blushing damsel betrothed to the executioner; economizing on officials (not to mention actors), there's a grand Pooh-Bah in charge of nearly everything; and there is, indeed, a "mikado," the emperor of all he surveys but, more importantly in this high-stepping empire, the hippest cat in town. Even the names, Gilbert and Sullivan's comic versions of Japanese monosyllables on the English ear, are a farcical flourish: Pish-Tush, Nanki-Poo, Pooh-Bah, Ko-Ko, Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, Peep-Bo, Katisha -- all citizens of the land of Titipu. If you can read those aloud and keep a straight face, you've wandered into the wrong music hall.

In short, Hot Mikado is, like its model, a show about music, singing, dancing and silliness, and not necessarily in that order. Rob Bowman's adaptation of Arthur Sullivan's whimsical music retains more of the melodic line than might have seemed possible -- a couple of the best-known songs, notably "I've Got a Little List" and "Tit-Willow," survive pretty much intact -- but he shifts the arrangements forward 60 years, into le jazz hot of swinging drums and horns, with a couple of side trips into big-band blues and showtime gospel. Unlike other Broadway-cannibalized versions of popular forms -- the condescending imitations by Lloyd-Webber come painfully to mind -- Bowman clearly has a feel for the music, and these tunes organically fit their rejuvenated contexts. One is suddenly struck by the sensibility that opera and big-band jazz, as such highly stylized art forms, have in common. As the Duke might have said, neither means a thing if they ain't got that swing.

And swing Hot Mikado does, not only in its score but in its dazzling dancing, choreographed by its lyricist and director, David H. Bell. The show leans heavily on its male and female chorus line, a dozen or so troupers who deliver with an energy and athleticism that keeps the show pushing forward when its admittedly trifling humor is flagging. (Bell's writing is not so winning; the transitional dialogue often limps, and the show's best jokes still belong to William Gilbert.) Bell uses the dancers as an extra rhythm section; they tap their feet and hearts away, with a little steppin' off thrown in for good measure.

The whole cast dances to a very high shine, and sings nearly to the same standard. Leads Rob Evans (Nanki-Poo) and Denise Connolly (Yum-Yum) are bright enough, especially Connolly in her signature ballad "The Sun and I," but they are outshone by their colleagues Avery Sommers (a powerful Katisha), Raymond Bazemore (an orotund Pooh-Bah) and Audrey Klinger (a stentorian Pitti-Sing). The whole ensemble is perhaps directed too much for volume rather than nuance, but that is undeniably show-biz, as is the eye-pleasing Japanese-deco neon set of Daniel M. Proett and the zoot-suited guys-and-dolls flash costumes of Nancy Missimi.

Also show-biz is Jim Corti's Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. Despite his exalted title, this is a low comic role, and the diminutive Corti fills it with a slapstick and rubbery-limbed zest that carries much of the show's parodic humor. He and his mountain-size straight man, Bazemore, become a sharply timed vaudeville team.

Once all these comic billiard balls have been sent colliding, the trickiest shots are left to the Mikado himself, Eugene Fleming, whose much-anticipated and long-delayed entrance calls for an actor/

inger/dancer who must, all by himself, alter the balance of power on stage. Fleming does so with a scene-stealing confidence all the more powerful because it seems so effortless. Director Bell has given him a long tap solo that clears the decks, and his comic homily on the nuances of crime and punishment is the culmination of the show's lighthearted satire of social pretensions. Fleming's delightful performance provides a light-footed argument for a new system of governance: you want to run the joint, you'd better be the baddest dancer in town.

As the Mikado, Fleming also points out that the only place where everything works out happily is a musical comedy. That's what TUTS' audience pays for, and Hot Mikado, this double homage to a charming world that never was, delivers the goods.


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