IT WOULD probably be best to banish any cherished "Mikado" memories while watching Ford Theater's not-so-"Hot Mikado," which is meant to give Gilbert & Sullivan a goosing. Loud, colorful, boisterous (and bland) as a cheerleaders' convention, the show suffers from an overdose of director/choreographer David Bell's fuzzy focus and forced whimsy.
Under a veneer of Chicago jazz and zoot-suit kimonos, the 100-year-old operetta is vulgarized, homogenized and ground out as just another tap-happy R&B revue in the mold of "Bubblin' Brown Sugar" and its many imitators. The idea has precedents in "Swing Mikado" and "Hot Mikado," two all-black Federal Theater Project productions that hit Broadway in the '30s.
Retaining the merest skeleton of the plot of "The Mikado," Bell has chucked songs, excised big words, "updated" and colloquialized lyrics, and tacked an exuberant production number at the end of each act to vanquish the relative tedium of what has gone before. The result is undeniably entertaining in its most high-spirited, high-kicking moments, but it misses out on nearly all of the satirical wit and lilting melodicism of "The Mikado."
When they work -- which is more often than not -- musical director Rob Bowman's orchestrations are the freshest thing about "Hot Mikado." Spry and clever bop-flavored accents give Sullivan's melodies a head start, then overtake them. Several songs take nicely to adaptation, particularly "Three Little Maids," outfitted with scat-singing and Andrews Sisters harmonies; others, like "Titwillow," are kindly left almost as is.
The acting and singing is competent but unexceptional, with too many characterizations popped out of sitcom molds. As Nanki- Poo, Steve Blanchard does a Rex Smith turn with all the bland, blond, blown-dry charm of a game-show host. As the narcissistic Yum- Yum, Kathleen Mahoney-Bennett has a silkily erotic moment in her song "The Sun and I."
As Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, Frank Kopyc has the strongest comic presence, though he patterns his performance too closely on Dom DeLuise. Lawrence Hamilton makes a favorable impression with his megawatt smile as the light-footed Mikado. And as the unloved and over-the-hill troublemaker Katisha, Helena Joyce-Wright earns her huzzahs merely by holding her notes louder and longer than anyone else.
A stage whisper: Ford's has installed its long-awaited and widely publicized new wooden chairs, and though still not the ultimate in comfort, they have broader backs and more substantial cushioning, and will make evenings at Ford's considerably more enjoyable.