Dallas — What’s not to love about Theatre Three’s bright, high-voltage Hot Mikado? Not a thing when a show’s got this much zing. The 14 cast members sing and tap and boogie down like there’s no tomorrow, the satin dresses glow, the zoot suits fit tight and Scott Eckert’s six-member orchestra makes a solid Big Band sound that keeps the audience and the joint jumpin’ all through the show.
The Mikado, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta from 1885 you may know and love, which satirizes British politics through a Japanese setting, is still right there, but newly cadenced to an American Jazz beat from the ’20s. Got it? Hot Mikado is a 1985 adaptation by award-winning director and playwright David H. Bell and arranger Rob Bowman, inspired by the 1939 Broadway musical Hot Mikado, for which much of the music was lost. (1939 was also the year a movie version of the G&S original was released.) For sure, the Cab Calloway-style swing, brassy blues and get-down gospel are an amazingly apt fit for the topsy-turvy emotional swings and the comically absurdist plots of Britain’s famously quarrelling musical partners.
Director and costume designer Bruce R. Coleman moves his classy ensemble through a charming and hilarious recreation of the ridiculous story of lovers living in a land where flirting is a capital offense, and falling in love is therefore a kind of lunatic death wish. The truly existential humor springs from the high-hearted characters trying to figure a way out of the mess made by the ridiculous laws laid down by the all-powerful ruler and his screw-up court. Sound familiar? Coleman nails it.
The forbidden love between Nanki-Poo (Dennis Wees) and Yum-Yum (Natalie Coca), a maiden promised to the Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko (Paul Taylor) turns the nutty plot, introduces a bizarre and groovy bunch of jivers, and is cause for 20 marvelous melodies with matching witty lyrics.
You want romance? It’s all over the place. Wees is a slender and lyrical young tenor who makes Nanki-Poo worth all the hearts that throb for him when he croons “A Wand’ring Minstrel.” He can even toot his own bugle! Coca’s Yum-Yum is a petite, lively soprano with an air of charming innocence and hilarious egotism, especially in her delivery of “The Sun & I,” in which she compares her beauty to that of other outstanding celestial bodies in the firmament. She teams up with her handmaidens, played by Grace Neeley and Sky Williams, to sing “Three Little Maids” in terrific Andrews Sisters-style harmony. If the rhythm fits, go for it.
Taylor’s Ko-Ko is a hoot, with his eager, silly smile, outfitted in a day tux and bow tie, with and kimono robe over it all. Robe thrown over it. Ko-Ko’s really a big old sissy, terrified at the thought of actually executing somebody. He willingly follows the lead of Pooh-Bah (an archly ironic Darren McElroy), his cool-cat second in command who also handily doubles as every other civil servant in the kingdom, thus making all official decisions quick and easy. They’re perfectly full of themselves strutting around the David Walsh’s faux Japanese set and singing “Behold the Lord High Executioner.” The eight-member ensemble backs everybody up in high style, singing everything from swing to be-bop. I loved Kelly McCain’s choreography, especially in the opening jitterbug turns and the tight tap dance in the second act.
Blowing the whole show away is blues diva, hot-gospel singer, and drop-dead sexy comedienne Denise Lee as Katisha, the fire-breathing, man-hunting old gal of the court who has first dibs on handsome Nanki-Poo. Even before she walks on stage in her clinging hot pink get-up and blonde wig, the music signals that something wickedly wacky this way comes. Lee’s Katisha not only holds command over these young hipsters—they cower to the floor at her mere glance. Now that’s presence. Her comic timing is perfect, and her wanton lovemaking to the microphone in her wailing hilarious rendition of “The Hour of Gladness” is one for the books.
Taylor’s comic instinct is heightened to the belly-laugh point when he and Lee get together. He sings the sentimentally silly “Tit-Willow” as if every note was a delicate sob. And when Ko-Ko and Katisha sing “Beauty in the Bellow,” they are a match made in comedy heaven.
Major Attaway is a hugely funny Mikado, shaking his gluteus maximus nearly off the edge of the elevated corner of the set, while keeping it all cool with an itty-bitty black fan—and recovering instantly when he accidentally crushes the prop on opening night. Now there’s a Mikado you gottta respect.
In an interesting side note, Hot Mikado is one of two contemporary, dance-party takes on a dramatic work from the British isles in the late 19th century that are currently playing in Dallas, the other being Wilde/Earnest at Kitchen Dog Theater.
It's good to know we can still groove to the classics.