Monday, May 10, 2010

Classic update

The three little maids of Hot Mikado. Photos by Andrew Brilliant.

In one of the most famous songs in the The Mikado, Ko-Ko, the executioner who doesn't really want to kill anybody, sings about the "little list" he keeps of those who "never would be missed" if he ever did pull together the courage to exercise his professional prerogatives.

And in the middle of some of W.S. Gilbert's wittiest lyrics comes the following:

"The nigger serenader and the others of his race . . . I've got them on the list! They never would be missed!"

As many commentators say today: these lines are dropped in contemporary productions. And needless to say, they're never missed. No, they're never, ever missed.

Still, it's worth remembering that once the n-word was in The Mikado. And shocking as that racist smear seems in a such a charming confection (and it's all the more shocking because it's so offhand and unthinking), imagine the irony that must have weighed on the stars of Hot Mikado, the jazzy update with an African-American cast that Mike Todd produced for the New York World's Fair in 1939 (silent movie below; a similar update, Swing Mikado, had already played on Broadway). We have to imagine their feelings, because no record of their outrage - or resignation - exists; all we know is that they changed the line to "banjo serenader" and soldiered on. Which is really much better than W.S. Gilbert deserved.

The great Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the 1939 production of Hot Mikado.

Then again, how could we (or they) ever give up on The Mikado, one of the most sweetly silly works of art ever produced, and certainly a legacy for the ages? It's a sad fact that even the greatest art comes with the racist and sexist baggage of its era attached - always. (Always.) To shun that art based on its reflection of its prejudiced milieu would be a mistake that - well, let's just hope a similar judgment is never passed on us, because rest assured, even the most progressive among us is harboring assumptions that will horrify future generations. Civilization is, in the end, a long effort to salvage our best selves from the worst that lurks within us.

Still, what's striking about Hot Mikado - at least in the version pulled together by David H. Bell and Rob Bowman in 1986, which the New Rep has on tap through May 22, is how warm and sweet-spirited it is toward its source. We just saw G&S violated (rather than "plundered") in the Huntington's crass extravaganza Pirates! last year, so the dangers of updating these operettas is understandably top-of-mind for many of us. Never fear, however: Hot Mikado trims material here and there (it's only two hours long) - some of which, I admit, I missed (particularly the thrilling choruses at the close of Act 1). But most of its jazz and swing versions of the original songs are wonderful - and sometimes exquisite, as in the delicate keyboard line that guides what may be Sullivan's most beautiful aria, "The sun whose rays are all ablaze." And if the show's tone is a bit broader than that of the original, it's just as cleverly sentimental, and that's the real trick.

The Mikado makes his big entrance.

And fortunately, the New Rep has done the show up right, with a crack ensemble that sings and dances its talented heart out, a tight back-up band, and brightly rendered (if perhaps slightly Disneyfied) design. Alas, there's no real chorus, which is too bad, but the cast is so energetic and talented that newcomers to G&S may not even notice the gap. Perhaps first among this cast of equals was McCaela Donovan as a pitch-perfect Yum-Yum, who was romanced by a dashingly intelligent (and beautifully voiced) Nanki-Poo in the person of Cheo Bourne, while receiving top-notch back-up from Michele A. DeLuca and Aimee Doherty (who really unleashed her pipes in "He's Gonna Marry Yum-Yum"). What these two white chicks were doing in Hot Mikado, I've no idea, but I didn't really mind - I'm all about the color-blind casting, donchaknow! Then again, I guess the New Rep didn't want us to think about this as the "black" Mikado or something - instead, I guess it's supposed to be just multi-culturally hot. (You can see how self-conscious this kind of thing quickly gets.) One eyebrow did go up, however, when the piece's villainess, Katisha, turned out to be the cast's only Asian. What was up with that? Again - who knows, but it was good to have the talented Lisa Yuen onboard, who triumphed not only over her odd casting but a wayward microphone, too.

There was more strong singing and smart comic work from Edward M. Barker as Poo-Bah (so it was too bad the part was so trimmed down), and a bemusedly imperious (and delightfully self-amused) turn from Kennedy Reilly-Pugh as the Mikado himself. The one gap I felt in the cast was Calvin Braxton's Ko-Ko; Mr. Braxton's musical and movement skills were clear, but he didn't give us the knowing sophistication we usually expect of Ko-Ko, and didn't really replace it with anything else. Still, if Braxton was a bit blank, he nevertheless knew how to play amusingly nervous riffs on his jokes.

The physical production was sharp and stylish - Francis Nelson McSherry's clever costumes mixed and matched kimonos and zoot suits on Janie Howland's brightly colored, slightly toy-like set; yet somehow the design didn't feel as adult or sophisticated as the music. Meanwhile director Kate Warner's production notes went on in a predictably politically correct manner about how she hoped the production would expand the multicultural context of the operetta, blah blah blah, but luckily once the curtain rose she let us forget all the Huntington-development-department-We-Are-The-World crap and have a good time (and at any rate, as I mentioned, the racial casting felt kind of scrambled, anyway). Alas, her direction proved at times nearly frantic (we were grateful for the relative calm of "The sun whose rays"), but Warner did keep things moving, and no one ever wished for a slow summer show, did they. Still, I couldn't help feeling that the production never really tapped into the relaxed sauciness you can feel even in that silent clip from 1939 - and without that unforced freedom, the show may be fun, but will it ever be "hot"? I'm not sure. Then again, sometimes fun is enough.