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On F Street, between 9th and 10th Streets NW, stands a piece of the building that once housed the 9:30 Club. Steel buttresses support—and partly obscure—the elegant brick facade, all that remains of the place.
Around the corner at Ford’s Theatre, something similar could be said of its reasonably rollicking revival of Hot Mikado. Thanks to three showbiz veterans who give ’40s-inflected performances, you can still see the elegance of the original conception—a bluesy, hepcat take on Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operetta—but you have to view it through contemporary buttressing that treats the concept as mere window dressing and frequently obscures its charm.
Though Broadway audiences saw both a Hot Mikado and The Swing Mikado, duelling 1939 African-American versions of the tale of a wand’ring minstrel, his dippy sweetie, and a goofy Lord High Executioner, little remained of scripts or scores, so the current show had to be built from scratch in 1986. David H. Bell updated W.S. Gilbert’s book with references to Franklin Roosevelt and telephone party lines, and Rob Bowman created nifty new boogie-woogie and blues harmonies for Arthur Sullivan’s tunes, swinging the hell out of “Sing a Merry Madrigal” and arranging “Three Little Maids From School” so it sounded like an Andrews Sisters ditty.
With a deco setting that featured brass bamboo and a neon-trimmed pagoda, and costumes that reflected the Harlem Renaissance, the show fairly bristled with period charm in its first incarnations. And because most of those elements have been faithfully re-created (Daniel Proett’s set was apparently still in storage from a 1994 revival), you might expect it to do so again.
But there’s a disconnect between what’s intended and what’s actually onstage this time, largely because of casting. David Ayers, who plays the wand’ring trombonist, Nanki-Poo, and Kelli Rabke, who plays the delectable Yum-Yum, are perfectly pleasant performers, but neither seems remotely acquainted with swing vocalizing. Ayers, with his pop voice and affectless phrasing, sounds as if he’d stepped directly into this role from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (and looks as if he’d brought the sleeves of that garment with him, along with an Up With People haircut). Rabke has the ’40s look right but possesses a nasal, microphone-dependent, Linda Ronstadt-y soprano that makes her Yum-Yum sound like a swinging Eponine from Les Miz.
They’re surrounded by a chorus attired a la Guys and Dolls, but singing a la Godspell, and dancing with the sort of undisciplined abandon that passes for heat in dinner theaters. (For the real article, check out Contact at the National.) The male chorus is especially sloppy, all coltish energy, showboating, and wide grins in place of synchronized steps.
Still, there are definite compensations. Sit through the first three lackluster numbers and you’re rewarded with the hijinks of a vaudevillian who combines vintage Bert Lahr schtick with Ed Wynn-someness and vocal stylings all his own. His name is Ross Lehman, and his Lord High Executioner is a hoot, whether sidling up languorously to a lamppost, skittering through a dance number, or unspooling a 50-foot list of potential executionees.
Also worth waiting for is Ted L. Levy’s tap-dancing Mikado, who seems to have studied the Hines Bros. moves and patter, and scores strongly in the first of a trio of back-to-back 11 o’clock numbers that cap Bell’s staging. Immediately thereafter, Chandra Currelley’s allegedly plain (but to my eyes pretty striking) she-dragon weighs in with a persuasively torchy blues rendering of “Alone and Yet Alive,” after which Lehman steals the show back from his co-stars with an idiotically seductive “Tit Willow,” in which he twitters and cajoles his way into his lady love’s lap—and the audience’s heart.
Star turns all, and if they were in a more cohesively staged evening, they’d each stop the show cold. But at Ford’s they’re surrounded by all sorts of pop detritus—ballads crooned in voices that sound strictly ’80s, costumes that range from zoot suits to argyle sweaters, and generic choreography of the wave-your-arms-and-kick variety favored by theme-park entertainments.
When Bell lets the three old pros take the spotlight, Hot Mikado is good fun—never blistering, exactly, but sprightly and amusing. When he turns the kids loose, especially when he has them go into mike-assisted belting mode, everything turns decidedly bland. Still, the show was a hit in 1986 and 1994, and it will no doubt click in 2002 with the tourist crowd.
And why not? There’s no real reason Hot Mikado shouldn’t come back at eight-year intervals (the way Disney features used to reappear every so often) for the foreseeable future. Each new revival, of course, will be a trifle more removed from the original swing impulse, even as that impulse becomes as distant for modern audiences as the operetta form was for audiences in the swing era. Presumably, someone will eventually come up with a Rock Mikado, or a Rap Mikado, but the audience for those probably won’t be showing up at Ford’s Theatre anytime soon. CP