New `Hot Mikado' passes up operetta's charm

The Mikado actually tap-dances in a rousing adaptation of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta at Ford's Theater. ``Hot Mikado,'' it will be recalled, was the title of producer Mike Todd's black version of Gilbert and Sullivan's ``The Mikado.'' The Todd production, which opened on Broadway in 1939, starred tap-dance baron Bill (Bojangles) Robinson.

Program notes indicate that the present staging of ``Hot Mikado'' is an amalgam of both the Todd production and a ``Swing Mikado'' produced by the Federal Theater Project as part of a Depression-era unemployment program under President Roosevelt.

So a great deal of grafting has gone on to produce this hybrid. The result is a sometime clash of cultures. That may account for the fact that this ``Hot Mikado'' is uneven, full of zest but lacking an essential, cohesive charm.

David H. Bell, who directed a vigorous revival of ``Godspell'' at Ford's Theater last year, has romped back into town with this production, which absolutely bursts with frenzied energy. His ``Hot Mikado'' makes Jane Fonda exercise tapes look positively slothful.

Purists may find that the witty patter songs and mannered fun of their favorite Gilbert and Sullivan numbers have been sacrificed to the beat of this new production. ``My Object All Sublime'' (to let the punishment fit the crime) and ``Three Little Maids From School'' are recognizable. But some other numbers unfortunately disappear in riffs and scats and jazzy variations.

Carol Oditz's costumes put the men of ``Hot Mikado'' in flashy '40's zoot suits wrapped with obis (sashes) for a neon kimono look, while the women are dressed like the Cotton Club-comes-to-Kyoto.

Daniel Proett's clever set, a lacquered Japanese bridge and stylized bonsai trees with leaves made of rainbow-colored fans, acts as a highly stylized backdrop.

Lawrence Hamilton, a terrific tap-dancer, makes a splendiferous Mikado. Richard Bazemore steals the show as Pooh-Bah, with his William Warfield voice -- a deep, thrilling bass -- and his gift for merry satire in true G&S style. Helena-Joyce Wright as Katisha is the hottest singer in this ``Hot Mikado.'' The opening-night audience loved her performance. Steve Blanchard's Nanki-Poo is sometimes upstaged by all the jiving round him. Kathleen Mahony-Bennett tries hard, looks pretty, but seems miscast as Yum-Yum.

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