The next production of the PCPA Theaterfest will be David Bell’s Hot Mikado, an adaptation of one of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s most popular operettas, The Mikado, with book and lyrics adapted by Bell, and musical concepts and arrangements by Rob Bowman, Bell’s partner at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
The PCPA production is directed by Valerie Rachelle, and stars Billy Breed as the dreaded Mikado, Julianna Jaffe as Katisha, Brad Carroll as Ko-Ko, Kiera O’Neil as Yum Yum, Jeff Deards, Jr. as Pish Tush, Bree Murphy as Pitti Sing, Michael Jenkinson as Nanki Poo, Christine Nelson as Peep Bo and Corey Jones as Pooh Bah.
For several reasons, I wondered at the advisability of transposing a Moliere comedy from its mid-17th Parisian context to an English American colony in the 18th century. No such scruples assert themselves in this case. The Japan of the original is like no Japanese society ever, and is meant only as an exotic proxy for the English society and government of Gilbert and Sullivan’s day.
Hot Mikado is set in the Japan of the 1940s, though only tenuously connected with the actual history of the period. There is also, in the PCPA production, a taste of the Cotton Club, and some 1940s radio personalities. In one sense, it is like the local production of The Nutcracker ballet set in 1930s Hollywood instead of 19th century Russian, except here the music has been altered quite a bit.
The concept of Hot Mikado comes from Mike Todd — a theatrical producer, sometime partner of Orson Welles, producer of Around the World in Eighty-Days (Oscar for Best Picture, 1956), and husband of Elizabeth Taylor in the last year of his life — who actually had done a production of The Mikado while he was still in high school.
In 1939, Todd had been touring with a straightforward production of Mikado and was hoping to do something a little more jazzy. When he heard that the Federal Theatre Project was working on an all-black Swing Mikado, he offered to produce the show. They turned him down, so he produced on Broadway an all-black Hot Mikado.
Hot Mikado, with lavish costumes and a pulse-pounding, foot-tapping score, was something of a hit, and was chosen as part of the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. Bell and Bowman’s version partakes of both the Swing Mikado and Todd’s Hot Mikado, without the racial casting, which made sense in the 1930s but would seem sort of odd, if not condescending, now.
Hot Mikado opens Friday and runs through Sept. 7 at the Marian Theatre in Santa Maria, and Sept. 12-28 at the Festival Theater in Solvang. For tickets and showtimes, call the box office at 805.922.8313, or visit www.pcpa.org/.
Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.