Probably the only thing more engaging than an actual Savoy Opera is an “updated” version of a Savoy Opera — meaning same general plot but altered libretto, sexier costumes, songs rendered in “swing” form, and the word “hot” inserted in the title. Ergo, The Hot Mikado, adapted by David H. Bell from the original Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s currently in repertory at Masquers Playhouse in Point Richmond, with a cast that bears little resemblance to the original 1939 Broadway ensemble (which was all African-American), but that features enough talent to breathe life into what otherwise might be fusty material.
Granted, many of the jokes in The Hot Mikado seem as lewd and droll today as they did 72 years ago. For one thing, it’s set in a town called Titipu (titty-poo), where citizens are hog-tied by an extremely severe penal code: Flirting is punishable by death, as is suicide, adultery, cavorting with an otherwise condemned person, and most anything that would qualify as pleasurable or taboo in our world. Yet in defiance of both the law and Freudian theory, the repressed Titiputians are anything but repressed. All they do is stand around and bat eyes at one another. We get a taste of that right from the opening, when a grand dame named Peek-a-Boo (Pam Drummer-Williams) emerges to give us the lowdown. “Welcome to Titipu,” she coos, sipping from a flask and opening her fan with a sharp click, as though it were a punctuation mark.
From there, it’s fairly easy to see where this Mikado is going. The curtains open to reveal a four-member band: sax, trumpet, trombone, and keyboard. The set, designed by Bruce Lackovic, is kitschily Japanese: long branches in painted pots, paper lanterns dangling from the ceiling, a blue scrim in the background to give the sense that we’re all sitting in a temple. Director Ellen Brooks doubled as the show’s lighting designer, and she tempers some of the clichés by bathing the world of Titipu in a dusky orange glow. The gents enter, all wearing pinstripe suits and fedoras that befit the cast of Chicago. They launch into the show’s first chorus line: “We Are Gentlemen of Japan.” Larded with four-part harmonies that singers Sean Beecroft, Bob Galagaran, Anthony V. Lucido, and Gill Stanfield are mostly capable of hitting, it starts things off on a high note.
Though its script is dated, the play is surprisingly entertaining — more so for kids than adults, as evidenced by the peal of little-girl laughter that resonated from a back row last Saturday, every time an actor uttered the word Titipu. And its storyline isn’t particularly hard to follow. In a nutshell, the emperor’s son Nanki-Poo (Beecroft) has disguised himself as a wandering musician in order win and wed the beautiful Yum-Yum (Amy Lucido), but his plans are foiled by the lord high executioner Ko-Ko (Coley Grundman), who is also competing for Yum-Yum’s affections — and who will only concede her hand on the condition that Nanki-Poo agree to be decapitated by month’s end. From there, complications ensue, not so much for the purpose of plot as for the sake of justifying two acts’ worth of song-and-dance numbers.
That, of course, is the main selling point of any Mikado, although the musical talent in this cast varies. In truth, Beecroft seems like an odd choice for the male lead, given that he appears to be modulating his voice for some of the alto parts (though it’s also possible he had a cold last week). But his counterparts more than make up for it. Lucido has a strong, supple musical theater voice that can easily accommodate one solo number and two duets; Grundman, while not exactly a formidable singer, still lends delicacy and comic diffidence to his role as Ko-Ko. Keith Stevenson makes a fabulously imposing Mikado, with his gold watch chain and faint British accent. But the real star is Debra Harvey, who plays Nanki-Poo’s jilted suitor, Katisha. Clearly the best vocalist of the lot, she sings about love and heartbreak in a lustrous alto that easily deepens to a Bessie Smith-style growl.
The Hot Mikado doesn’t offer much by way of surprises — it’s swing-era musical theater, after all. Yet it’s cute, endearing, and mercifully succinct. In this case, each act clocked in at a sharp fifty minutes. That’s just long enough to soak up the narrative and feel sympathy for the characters, and not quite long enough to be annoyed by, say, the distinct rattle of an Altoids tin in Row 5. Old-style musicals are a Masquers Playhouse specialty, and the directors there are good at choosing repertory that a small theater company can handle. Sure, it’s light stuff. But it works.
Update: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Peek-a-Boo was played by Kimberly Miller. It was in fact Pam Drummer-Williams. Miller is a dancer in the show.