Sky­light’s ‘Hot Mikado’ dances ‘from top to bot­tom’

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - By Michael Muck­ian Con­tribut­ing writer

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.


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 sky­light­mu­sicthe­

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.


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 AfricanAmer­i­can 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.


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.”

Ac­tor/singer Jame­cia Ben­nett.

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