Hot Mikado

Actor/singer Jamecia Bennett.

Attend a Gilbert and Sullivan light opera and you’re sure to find catchy songs, tongue-twisting lyrics, wry humor, social commentary and stereotypes of subjects inside and outside the British realm.

There are rarely performances of the jitterbug.

Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre aims to rectify that with its performances of Hot Mikado, an update of the G&S comic classic that transports the familiar characters of Nanki-Poo, Ko-Ko, Pish-Tush and others from 19th century Japan to 1940s America.

Performances run Sept. 29–Oct. 15 on a Cabot Theatre stage that has been transformed into a big-band nightclub. Think of famed Harlem nightspot The Cotton Club and you’ll have some idea of the show’s tone and timbre.

And know this: There will be a lot dancing.

“There is dancing from top to bottom,” says director Austene Van, who is helming her first Skylight show. “Choreographer Garry Q. Lewis really puts my very talented cast through its paces and the results show.”

In addition to the jitterbug, expect to see characters do the Lindy hop, black bottom and other dances of the period, to music that ranges from jazz and blues to gospel and swing. The show will be a significant departure from its staid, English music-hall roots, Van adds.

The Mikado, also known as The Town of Titipu, is the ninth of 14 collaborations between W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

The show opened in London in 1885.

The convoluted narrative concerns young love, silly characters, absurd social conventions — and a character originally sentenced to beheading for flirting.

This being light opera, of course, the lovers are reconciled, clumsy social mores overturned — and heads remain intact.

Stereotypes and social criticism

Gilbert was as much a social critic as he was a musical satirist.

As The Mikado librettist, Gilbert once again took the opportunity to skewer the British government by portraying its failings in the guise of a different culture, much as Jonathan Swift did in Gulliver’s Travels.

Like much early humor, The Mikado trades on stereotypes, in this case involving the Japanese culture — to the point that early productions were done in “yellowface.” These days, such plot elements are handled more gingerly, Van says.

“I find it interesting to address the sticky stereotypes, reimagine the play and make comment on some of the language and ideals that people were not as sensitive to in those days,” Van says. “That idea challenges me and made me want to see how creative we could be and still maintain the writer’s text.”

The Skylight is not the first theater to address those issues. Those steps were first taken in 1939, when legendary producer Mike Todd mounted the first iteration of Hot Mikado on Broadway, with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson leading an all African-American cast.

The show opened to rave reviews for its singing, dancing and outrageous costumes. The production was eventually featured at the 1940 New York World’s Fair.

Todd captured 16mm color film footage of one of the World’s Fair performances, three minutes of which can be found on YouTube. Unfortunately, the footage is silent, but the costumes and dancing helped to guide subsequent productions.

‘Love triumphs over political climates’

Van’s version of Hot Mikado is inspired not by the Todd adaptation but by the 1986 David Bell and Rob Bowman version. Bell and Bowman recreated much of the narrative from whole cloth, and their model has served as a guide for productions like the one at the Skylight.

“Our story is that of a cast preparing for a production of Hot Mikado,” Van says. “Since this is a club setting, four audience members will be chosen to sit at two tables on the stage sipping a signature cocktail developed especially for the show.”

There is no definitive word yet on what that cocktail will be, other than that it has to be “clear,” Van explains. The cocktail also will be available for purchase at the lobby bar during intermission, she adds.

Leading the cast will be actor/singer Jamecia Bennett as the character Katisha, and local favorite Chris Klopatek as Ko-Ko. Michael Penick as Nanki-Poo and Rana Roman as Yum-Yum round out the lead performers.

The Minneapolis-based Bennett is a recording artist and lead singer of the three-time Grammy Award-winning vocal and instrumental ensemble Sounds of Blackness. Bennett also is Van’s friend, and the director convinced her to take the part — her first Skylight performance.

“I don’t understand how talent like that walks around on two legs,” Van says of her friend. “She has so much energy and force inside her body that it almost moves people physically.”

Van also is confident the power, energy and pure enjoyment of the show will move audience members, whether they are Skylight veterans or first-time attendees.

“I think the show’s message is that love triumphs over political climates, over prejudice and adversity,” Van says. “It’s joyful entertainment that allows us to see some hope.

“But I also want the audience to go home dancing,” she adds. “I think that’s what we need right now.”

On stage

Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Hot Mikado runs Sept. 29–Oct. 15 in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Tickets are $30–$75 and can be purchased from the Broadway Theatre center box office in person or by calling 414-291-7800. For more, go online to skylightmusictheatre.org.

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