Abandon all traditional notions of Gilbert and Sullivan -- ye who enter Ford's Theatre.
That's what the creators of "Hot Mikado" have done with a recklessness that will turn purists pale, but ought to please tired businessmen of all ages and sexes. This brash, broad upending of "The Mikado" makes Joseph Papp's recent pop version of "The Pirates of Penzance" look like a piece of scholarship. But you won't fall asleep.
At Ford's, they've jettisoned pages of Gilbert's lyrics and chunks of the libretto. While they've kept most of Sullivan's songs, Grandma may have trouble humming along; the melodies have been sassed up, jazzed up and generally bullied into the Big Band era.
The Mikado, familiarly referred to as "His Hooferness," is now a slick tap dancer from the Kingdom of Harlem. The three little maids sing tight Andrews Sisters harmonies and do bumps. Yum-Yum, the fair bride, is dressed by the House of Gypsy Rose Lee. An operetta that, among other things, once capitalized on the British mania in the late 19th century for things Japanese has been transformed into a show that wants to exploit our nostalgia for the 1940s.
Actually, there are precedents for the goings-on at Ford's -- Mike Todd's showy "The Hot Mikado" and Chicago Federal Theatre's production of "The Swing Mikado," both of which perpetrated similar mischief on Gilbert and Sullivan, and both of which briefly competed for customers on Broadway in 1939. Just what in Ford's show comes from "The Hot Mikado," what comes from "The Swing Mikado" and what is brand-new I am unable to say (the program is no help), although something tells me the line about "fried sushi" is newly coined.
It probably doesn't matter. History -- not to mention Gilbert and Sullivan -- is a mere pretext here. What choreographer and director David Bell has really put together is a loud be-bopping revue, in which the men wear zoot suits and the women wear considerably less. "Hot Mikado" is one part "Top Banana," two parts "Bubbling Brown Sugar" and three parts tent show. The results are peppier than Bell's prior efforts for Ford's -- "Godspell" and "Little Me" -- even if one can't entirely shake the notion that he doesn't create excitement on stage so much as he manufactures it.
"Hot Mikado" uses the remnants of Gilbert's story about the efforts of Nanki-Poo ("the second trombone" in a traveling swing orchestra) to win the hand of Yum-Yum (a doo-wah singer) at the same time he's trying to escape the executioner's blade and the clutches of the fearsome Katisha (a torch singer). The updating pretty much wreaks havoc on Gilbert's satire, unless you happen, for example, to consider Reverend Ike, autograph hounds and talkative women on party lines to be worthy additions to the Lord High Executioner's "little list" of social irritants.
*"Here's a How-de-do," normally a show-stopping highlight, is dispensed with in three short choruses. When Nanki-Poo first learns that his beloved is betrothed to another, he turns full front and mutters, "Bummer!" Later on, the imperious Katisha is hit with the command to "shut your fly trap, gas bag." Witty words, deftly delivered, are not in great abundance.
The production scores its points elsewhere -- beginning with Rob Bowman's arrangements, which blare and swing and moan and jump all over the place like a jittery bobby-soxer who's drunk too many Cokes. They engender great bursts of pandemonium in the cast, which is either kicking so high that you fear for the lights or else tap-dancing so industriously that you fear for the floor. Some of this is invigorating. But after a while, you wish everyone wouldn't try quite so hard and would follow the example of Lawrence Hamilton, the dapper Mikado, who leads the jackhammer taps with offhanded ease.
When the cast is not dancing, it is singing to beat the six-piece band. Helena-Joyce Wright, slinking about in a sliver lame' gown as Katisha, is the audience favorite in this department. She brings a powerful, bluesy voice and a visceral immediacy to her numbers. But she, too, might fruitfully contemplate the virtues of the soft sell. There is, after all, a point at which a performer raising the roof begins to look like a performer busting a gut.
Steve Blanchard (Nanki-Poo), one of those pallid, blond leading men whom Bell keeps pitching our way, may have an on-stage personality; I couldn't detect it. And I daresay Kathleen Mahony-Bennett's Yum-Yum isn't as half as sexy as her white garters would have it. Pint-sized Robin Baxter (Pitti-Sing), however, is full of punch and chorus girl pizazz. Raymond Bazemore (Pooh-Bah) clowns with good-natured aplomb. And while Frank Kopyc (Ko-Ko) delivers a fairly colorless "Tit Willow," he manages to rise (or sink) to the low-comedy demands of his rollicking duet with Wright, "There Is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast."
In keeping with the evening's devil-may-care spirit, designer Daniel Proett has come up with the splendid set -- a heavily lacquered Japanese landscape that owes at least some of its unapologetic garishness to Times Square. Susan A. White's lighting goes in for the blowzy colors of the neon rainbow. And Carol Oditz's costumes are a dizzy blend of Erte, the girlie show and uptown Saturday night.
It ain't subtle -- any of it. Nor does it want to be. This is a show for those who've always thought Gilbert and Sullivan were too fussy and precious for their own good. "Hot Mikado's" catch-their-eye glitz and reel-'em-in gusto stem from another tradition entirely: the American midway.
Hot Mikado, adapted from Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado." Directed and choreographed by David Bell. Musical supervision and arrangements by Rob Bowman. Orchestrations, George Hummel; scenery, David Proett; costumes, Carol Oditz; lighting, Susan A. White. With Robin Baxter, Raymond Bazemore, Steve Blanchard, Merwin Foard, Lawrence Hamilton, Kathleen Mahony-Bennett, Val Scott, Helena-Joyce Wright. At Ford's Theatre for 11 weeks.