Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre

Lyricist William Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan had just about reached the end of their relationship, the story goes, when they wrote their biggest hit, in 1885. The temperamental team, whose comic operettas had delighted English audiences for a decade, had reached a creative stalemate; Sullivan had rejected Gilbert’s most recent idea for a new collaboration, and Gilbert was storming around his study with such intensity that he shook a Japanese ceremonial sword loose from his wall. From that accident arose the idea for The Mikado, the sublimely silly story of a Japanese prince disguised as a minstrel who agrees to be beheaded if he may first enjoy one month of marriage to the headsman’s fiancee.

Perhaps because its pseudo-oriental setting raised it to a new height of comedic improbability, The Mikado quickly proved susceptible to spoofing and tinkering; the Thatcher, Primrose, and West Minstrels’ The Mick-a-doh, for instance, played in New York within a few months of the original’s London opening. Probably the most famous takeoffs appeared in 1939, the year that two African American adaptations vied for New York audiences. Swing Mikado actually opened in Chicago in 1938 as an effort of the government-sponsored Federal Theatre Project. When impresario Michael Todd tried and failed to purchase commercial rights to the show, he opened his own Hot Mikado, starring the great tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, which ran on Broadway and then at the New York World’s Fair. Swing Mikado, meanwhile, ended up in the hands of Chicago producers Bernard Ulrich and Melvin Ericson after its funding was cut by congressional conservatives (sound familiar?).

The idea of a black Mikado is a little ironic, considering that Gilbert’s original lyrics employ the word “nigger” at least twice. The first time is in “I’ve Got a Little List,” the Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko’s patter song about all the people without whom society would get along just fine: “There’s the nigger serenader, and the others of his race. . . . They never would be missed,” sings the snickersnee-wielding headsman. It’s been argued that Gilbert meant not black people but white entertainers in blackface; the line was changed in the 1940s to “banjo serenader.” In any case, it’s hard to imagine what Gilbert would have thought of an integrated Mikado with whites and blacks singing in a black-born musical idiom.

Director David H. Bell’s Hot Mikado at Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre offers exactly that. Inspired by the all-black productions of 1939, Bell’s adaptation is a 30s period piece that employs jazz jargon, cartoon slapstick, and solid swing. The hep pep perks up the music, no question about it. For better or worse, depending on the viewer’s taste, musical director and adapter Rob Bowman has almost entirely sacrificed the sweet delicacy of Sullivan’s score to a new sassy, brassy energy. A fair amount of Gilbert’s libretto has also been updated–though to no later than 1939, when references to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were timely and an off-hand reference to Nagasaki carried no nuclear baggage. (Contemporary political references are studiously avoided, even though Ko-Ko’s jibe at “apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind” sounds remarkably fresh in the age of Clinton.)

Bell’s adaptation (cowritten with Frankie Hewitt, who was producing director of Ford’s Theatre in Washington when this adaptation was first presented there in 1986) is best when it’s truest to the original’s style and spirit. The comic key to the G & S operettas is the refinement and restraint with which the performers deliver the literate nonsense and non sequiturs of Gilbert’s librettos, which spoof the delusions and pretensions of politicians, aristocrats, and lovers across the spectrum of age and class. In Hot Mikado the funniest and most convincing sequences are those in which jazzy, jivey style doesn’t swamp clever content.

Thus the opening number, “We Are Gentlemen of Japan,” sung by a finger-snapping chorus of zoot-suited courtiers, nearly sinks the show, burying the lyrics under a raucous torrent of clutter. As the disguised prince Nanki-Poo, Stephen R. Buntrock comes off as a third-rate crooner in his ballad “A Wandering Minstrel, I,” when he abandons the song’s lilting lyricism for some strident falsetto wailing that wrecks the tune’s melodic shape. And Pooh-Bah, the all-purpose bureaucrat who claims “pre-Adamite ancestral descent” and offers to retail state secrets for a modest price, falls flat because actor Stanley White overloads the character’s satiric dialogue with unnecessary Amos and Andy-style posturing.

But later, when diminutive Ross Lehman makes his appearance as Ko-Ko, the cheap tailor turned Lord High Executioner who vies with Nanki-Poo for the affections of Yum-Yum, the show’s imbalance is immediately corrected. Lehman, nearly a dead ringer for Phil Silvers in his oversize tailor’s hat and knee-length suit jacket, capers through his role with a classic vaudevillian’s light touch; his Ko-Ko is unabashedly 1930s American yet authentically Victorian English at the same time. And when Felicia P. Fields struts her big bad self onstage as Ko-Ko’s counterpart Katisha, royally decreed by the imperial Mikado to be Nanki-Poo’s bride, Hot Mikado is home free.

Katisha is one of those contralto battle-axes who are staples of the G & S canon–the targets of cruel jokes about female attractiveness yet also the characters with the most soul. In Fields’s performance, Katisha’s a blues belter whose outrageous interaction with Lehman’s Ko-Ko makes for the most hilarious Mikado ever. Their climactic courtship scene, with Ko-Ko singing the mock-pathetic “Tit-Willow” to soften the formidable Katisha’s bloodthirsty heart, is as richly funny as 19th-century operetta or 20th-century musical comedy could ever hope to be, because the performers let their contemporary personalities infuse but not warp the material. And Katisha’s aria “Alone and Yet Alive” is actually improved by Fields’s lush gospel-style reading; the churchy beat even bolsters the old-fashioned lyrics (“Hearts do not break / They sting and ache / For old love’s sake / But do not die / Though with each breath / They long for death / As witnesseth the living I”).

With Lehman and Fields setting the pace, Hot Mikado finds its footing fast. Susan Moniz as the sweet, slightly inane Yum-Yum blends a fiery voice and impeccable timing in the ingenue’s self-satisfied song of herself, “The Sun and I”; Robin Baxter is a bravura belter as Yum-Yum’s sidekick Pitti-Sing (the three little maids from school announce their arrival with the Three Stooges’ famous “Hello-Hello-Hello” riff before launching into an Andrews Sisters-style close-harmony rendition of the song); and Jackie J. Patterson provides fleet footwork and laconic likability as the tap-dancing Mikado, who devised the law making extramarital flirtation a capital crime and set off the whole nutty story. Nancy Missimi’s colorful costumes add to the fanciful tone; so does Thomas M. Ryan’s handsome set, dotted with trees on which sprout Japanese fans (the fan motif is carried through on the paneled stage floor).

Those fans are about as Japanese as Hot Mikado gets. One of the show’s running jokes is the obvious inauthenticity of the oriental setting: “It’s in Japanese,” cries a perplexed Ko-Ko when presented with a letter from the Mikado. Then he remembers: “Oh. Right. We are Japanese.” Perhaps it would have ruined the gag to actually cast an Asian or two in the show; black and white actors make for a two-tone rainbow here.