42nd St. Moon’s jazzy ‘Hot Mikado’ has a single message: Have fun

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★½

Katisha (Michelle Ianiro, right) intimidates Pitti-Sing (Amie Shapiro, left) and others in the “Hot Mikado” ensemble. Photo by Ben Krantz Studio.

Sling together blues, gospel, boogie-woogie, jazz, operetta, opera and a touch of rock and whatcha got?

“Hot Mikado,” a hysterically funny, nonsensical musical souffle that stays light and puffed up.

For two incredibly fast hours (plus an intermission).

The 42nd Street Moon troupe, a high-energy ensemble cast of 14, takes a legendary Gilbert and Sullivan storyline, twists it by superimposing a zoot-suited, Damon Runyonesque flavor that leads the audience to a swingin’ musical-comedy adaptation that focuses on Titipu, a town turned upside-down by the appearance of Nanki-Poo, a meandering horn player in a desperate search for Yum-Yum, his lost love (who’s betrothed to her guardian, the Lord High Executioner).

Lucca Troutman (as Yum-Yum) couples with Jean-Paul Jones (as Nanki-Poo) in “Hot Mikado.” Photo by Ben Krantz Studio.

The book is by David H. Bell, who in 1986 produced this revamped revival, which had played on Broadway with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson four decades before.

Because no original orchestrations or vocal arrangements had survived from the 1886 version, Bell concocted a new plotline and lyrics while Rob Bowman adapted and arranged the songs that are a bit loud yet appealingly played by pianist/co-music director Dave Dobrusky and three other live, onstage musicians.

The new story doesn’t quite do what librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan intended in 1886 — despite keeping some of Gilbert’s original words.

Where the collaborators originally penned “The Mikado,” a satirical allegory of then-current British politics (despite the show being set in late 19th century Japan), this version shifts everything to 1940s Harlem and is intent on making the audience laugh, not think.

The feel-good show is therefore no direct link to today’s federal executive branch corruption but, echoing director/choreographer Jeffrey Polk’s accurate description, is, rather, “fun, quirky, message-free entertainment.”

I found it virtually impossible to keep a smile off my face for the entire show, especially because of Polk’s choreography, which starts off silly, gets slapstickier and then reaches the epitome of funny — a great respite from the daily headlines lurking outside the Gateway Theatre in downtown San Francisco where the show’s housed.

It’s easy, too, to grin at (mini-spoiler alert) the repeated character-breaking gag-line about performers of different skin color supposed to be Japanese, the colorful costumes designed by Marisely Cortés Fonseca, and an early sequence in which quasi-gangsters pull fans from their breast pockets rather than guns.

Jaron Vesely, over-the-top as Ko-Ko, mock-romances Katisha (Michelle Ianiro). Photo by Ben Krantz Studio.

Standouts include Michelle Ianiro as Nanki-Poo’s abandoned ex, Katisha (she belts out tunes like Mahalia Jackson and captivates the audience with torch songs a la Sarah Vaughn); Jean-Paul Jones as Nanki-Poo (he dances up a proverbial toe-tapping storm, and his mugging broadens my smiles); Jaron Vesely as Ko-Ko (whose comic antics and expressions linger in my mind’s eye for hours after the curtain); Brandon Noel Thomas as “The Mikado” (whose sly comic chops remind me of the late stand-up Godfrey Cambridge); Kelly Houston as Poo-Bah (with a voice that can stretch to a bass level that itself evokes joy); and Lucca Troutman as Yum-Yum (with vocalizations that resonate with a clarity I liken to Ethel Merman’s).

But everyone else in the ensemble also deserves praise — there’s not a clunker anywhere.

The sole flaw in the production is that the clever, clever lyrics aren’t always discernible, possibly because they’re sometimes convoluted, perhaps because they’re so speedy, maybe because the mics aren’t adjusted properly.

References to crooner Frank Sinatra or heavyweight champ Joe Louis may be too obscure for youngsters in the crowd, but for geezers like me they’re appropriately atmospheric.

Absolutely enchanting are numbers that don’t veer excessively far from Gilbert & Sullivan’s notions (“Three Little Maids” and “Tit-Willow,” in particular), but there’s not a bad note in the jazzy score, not a bad gag in writer Bell’s trunk.

And not a bad dancer or singer in the chorus.

So how do I end a rave review like this? With one word: Go!

“Hot Mikado” will run through Oct. 13 at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Night performances, 6 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays; matinees, 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5 and Sundays. Tickets $31 to $72. Info: www.42ndstmoon.org and 415-255-8207.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →