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