By Sandy Staggs
There is no doubt about it. GLOW Lyric Theatre’s “The Hot Mikado” is well, “Dynamite!” The company has outdone itself with “The Hot Mikado” in a joyous, side-splitting, foot-stomping production that you will leave clapping your hands as you walk out the doors of the Peace Center’s Gunter Theatre and with a strange urge to either pick-up the trumpet or join a choir.
In its aim to celebrate the Black experience and the cultural diversity of Greenville, GLOW husband-and-wife directors Christian Elser and Jenna Tamisiea have wisely chosen this rare gem to launch its summer season in repertory with “The Wiz.”
Based on the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, “The Hot Mikado” played for only 85 performances in 1939 with the great Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the title role. With an updated setting in a 1940s nightclub and the orchestral score completely reconfigured to smokin’ swing, jazz, blues and gospel, this multi-racial musical was almost lost to history until it was revived Off-Broadway in 1986 by David H. Bell (book and lyrics) and Rob Bowman (music adapting and arrangement) into the current version GLOW is presenting.
The “Overture” begins similarly to the Victorian version with the grand Japanese imperial battle march. But after a crash of the giant bong cymbal, the band nestled at the back at the stage launches into the swinging drum opening right out of Benny Goodman’s iconic “Sing Sing Sing.” At that moment, this show explodes and you know this ain’t the “The Mikado” you thought you knew.
The plot is more or less true to the original “The Mikado”: Nanki-Poo (Luke Walker), a second-rate trumpet player, arrives in the Japanese town of Titipu in search of his true love Yum-Yum (Iliana Garcia) who is engaged the Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko, played by Tyler Pirrung. When Ko-Ko needs to save himself from an impending death sentence imposed by the almighty Mikado (Demetruis Spidle), he allows Nanki-Poo to marry Yum-Yum with the provision that he will take Ko-Ko’s place in the hangman’s noose in one month’s time.
The Mikado’s many unfeasible decrees and their enforcement by Pooh-Bah, the corrupt Lord High Everything Else (an impressive Xerron X. Mingo), provide much fodder for the more absurd and comical elements of the story. For example, the bong cymbal strikes every time his name is mentioned and everyone in Titipu must stop and hail the Mikado. And his name is spoken many, many times in this musical. So much that Ko-Ko even questions the law near the end of the narrative.
We are introduced to Titipu’s male inhabitants in “We Are Gentlemen of Japan” with most of the men in zoot suits. The women of Japan wear colorful and very close-fitted dresses of the 1940s and later have their turn in the spotlight with the gleeful “Three Little Maids” with Yum-Yum, and sister Peep-Bo (Tierney Breedlove) and Pitti-Sing (Leryn Turlington) in a superb display of Andrews Sisters-like vocal harmony.
There are traces of the operatic-style left intact in this adaptation such the sweet duet “This Is What I’ll Never Do” with Walker and Garcia showing off their tenor and soprano chops, respectfully, in semi-operatic voices for a few measures. “Wand’ring Minstrel,” one of the show’s signature songs becomes putty in Walker hands. And Garcia is a firecracker like Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno all rolled into one. Yes, different show but the resemblance is striking. She shows her prowess and her Yum-Yum’s vanity again in a beautiful “The Sun and I.”
Pirrung is perfect as the fumbling bureaucrat in his big solos in “Behold the Lord High Executioner” and in the hilarious libretto in “I’ve Got a Little List” as he contemplates which names to add to his list of people that annoy him. In the second act he delicately conquers the fanciful tale of the bird that died from a broken heart, “Tit-Willow” with panache and humor, and both are required for this naughty number which pokes fun at the town’s name too.
Mingo is still a student but has natural stage presence and the audience responded to this in droves op opening night in “And the Drums Will Crash” and most any scene he was in. And don’t forget Pish-Tush, a new character added in the 1980s revival. Billed as the “Coolest” gentleman in Japan, he is embodied by young tenor with a huge smile DeJuan Thompson.
And last, but certainly not least, there is the cougar character Katisha. Twenty-year-old Joslynn Cortes stepped into this role at the last minute and she categorically owns this role. Wearing a traditional Japanese Shimada wig and kabuki makeup, Cortes is aged as an unattractive and old vamp that has claimed Nanki-Poo for marriage under the Mikado’s flirting law and has a gorgeous “left shoulder blade” that men come for miles to see. She is mesmerizing in the part and kills ‘em in the burlesque-themed “Katisha’s Entrance” as the trumpet and trombone provide the suggestive melody.
Cortes, a contralto, also dazzles in the gospel and blue-driven “Hour of Gladness,” in the second act’s soulful ballad “Alone and Yet Alive” and again with Pirrung in the gorgeous “Beauty in the Bellow.” Three cheers for Cortes!
The Design Team
The show has several spectacular big dance numbers choreographed by Maurice Sims that include the Lindy Hop, the jitterbug and other wild swing dances from the 1940s. And there are show-stopping moments such as the finales in both acts and the high-octane “Let the Throng Our Joy Advance.”
However, Sims crowning achievement has got to be the opening of the second act with a single spotlight on two ensemble members Chris Lee and Tanisha Moore, who perform a slow, sensuous modern dance with shades of ballet and leave no doubt that they are trained, fit dancers.
And they return for the much-anticipated “Mikado Song” in an intricate tap dancing number with Spidle, even out-stepping the Mikado a time or two. But make no mistake, when Spidle makes his grand entrance as the Mikado in that smooth “Bojangles” tap down those semi-circle stairs, you notice him. He makes sure of that too when he pays tribute to the operetta itself when he cries something to the effect of “If only Gilbert and Sullivan could see me now!”
Lesley Preston’s set design transports us back to the 1940s – a la The Cotton Club ‑ with Elser conducting the big band at the rear of the stage with finely-detailed wooden music stands right out of the big band era that are painted to look like fine inlaid burl, light beech wood and golden mahogany veneers with the letters “HM” written in a pseudo-Japanese style-script. The sides of the stage are lined with a procession of 12 –foot painted lotus flowers anchored by Japanese fans
The fabulous jazz band with Elser as their leader includes Hailey Darnell on piano, Brent Belue on string bass and bass guitar, Christopher Earle on drums and percussion (including the gong cymbal), Jake Mitchell on the trumpet, Mike Miller with his trombone and Sam Clauter who plays, saxophone, clarinet and flute. And when you enter the Gunter theatre, you enter the nightclub for a show.
Kevin Frazier, who doubles as production manager, uses aggressive and stark lighting on the backdrop behind the band to great effect, giving us yellow and purple hues. But he gives the club soft blues and smoky tones as if we were in a speakeasy.
Will Lowry design the costumes for this production with attire from the 1940s, but often with a twist. Some character have touches of Japanese accessories including traditional wide sleeves and an obi that is laboriously wrapped and tied onto Yum-Yum’s wedding dress on stage, and some Samurai-inspired ornamentation.
Ms. Tamisiea directed this tight and slick production that is frankly, flawless, from the very first note. Hats off to Ms. Tamisiea.
And while the Gilbert and Sullivan version was a thinly-veiled stab at the British government – i.e. the many in-jokes about no one in Titipu literate in Japanese and character often reminding themselves and the audience that they are Japanese – the new version’s target of derision is not immediately clear. But no matter, “The Hot Mikado” is an aweing work of artistry that is entertaining and calming for the soul.
Tap yourselves over to the Peace Center’s Gunther Theatre for “The Hot Mikado” Saturday, July 18 for 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. matinees and Tuesday evening to Blues Boulevard for the Mikado Lounge to see the cast performing in a real jazz club. For tickets, visit www.glowlyric.com.
Also, catch “The Wiz” Sundays July 12 and 19 at 3 p.m. and Saturday, July 18 at 7:30 p.m. And don’t miss the cast from “The Wiz” at “A Day Out with Dorothy and Friends” in Cleveland Park on Tuesday, July 14 from 10 a.m. til noon.