The Hot Mikado

Wed 3rd – Mon 29th August 2011

reviews

Rowan Evans

at 11:33 on 22nd Aug 2011

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I’m not quite sure how I missed that this was going to be a musical. ‘Is Mikado traditional Japanese theatre? ... quite a big jazz band they’ve got set up for this one ... hmm, an opening song ... wait!’ It wouldn’t be fair to over-critique the plot, a sort of farce on the absurdity of law, of what is essentially a fantastic spectacle with West End enthusiasm and plenty of camp. Guys dressed like DiCaprio’s Romeo and fluorescent dolls fill every foot of the stage as every few lines of dialogue becomes the material for a new tune. Geek fascist in a kimono the Charlie Warner is infectiously watchable, a rubberized runner-bean whose Woody Allen accent doesn’t wilt when he sings. Some wry meta-musical behaviour becomes a little tiring - ‘this is in Japanese ... We are Japanese!’ - and a few of the dancers are a little stuck-in-the-mud to begin with. Guy Hughes’ Mikado reclaims my attention: ‘shit, he can tap dance!’ I rediscover the part of me that loves Fred Astaire in ‘Top Hat’.

The quintet are tight, expertly conducted by a pianist making up for lack of bassist with a careering left hand. This is obviously well rehearsed, not a single ritardando out of sync between band and cast. Male harmonies keep a barbershop precision while Yum-Yum (Hannah Howle) and her escorts pull off a 30s gramophone homophony. The only issue here is volume. While the band are micd up with on-stage monitors, the cast are relying on the strength of their own projection. Some singers make every syllable heard and ride above the ensemble, but at points diction is lost in a mass of noise. I do have major issues with this style of singing (the need for diaphragm over character, the accent, the teeth), so for me Sarah Hollinshead has the most intersting voice, her massive range and quivering gracenotes. Some more amplification would balance the breathier with those performers more suited to musical, but the auditorium is just about small enough to warrant a dry acoustic - maybe it's the band that could hold back a little. Durham Fringe Productions did well to keep this music hall cynic absorbed, in a professional revamp of the fathers of musical.

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Tanjil Rashid

at 12:28 on 22nd Aug 2011

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Is there a more beloved cultural entertainment of the well-heeled up there than the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta? And is there a musical genre more rooted in poverty and under-privilege than jazz, born down below in the squalor and slavery of the Deep South, its West African pedigree present in blue notes, swung notes and syncopation? Like the Grand Old Duke of York, The Hot Mikado, a jazz adaptation of G&S’s Mikado is neither up nor down, meeting at the midpoint of these two glorious traditions, the original libretti maintained but spruced up by Rob Bowman’s arrangement and orchestration, stunningly performed under Chris Guard’s excellent musical direction.

All the jazz genres are there, but most of all the score is reminiscent of the big band swing of the 1930s – the likes of Glen Miller and Count Basie – which is fair enough, given that the original production happened to be in 1939, but there are occasional divergences, like the gospel number “For He’s Gonna Marry Yum-Yum” and a rendition of “Tit-Willow” indistinguishable from the original. Far from coming over as inconsistent, this only adds to the musical richness. It was slightly disappointing to see that Durham Fringe Productions haven’t done anything original to the music, but obviously this diminishes in no way one’s enjoyment.

All the deliciously farcical elements of the plot are maintained: the Mikado, Emperor of Japan, declares flirting a capital crime, setting off a train of absurd political and personal machinations, leading, of course, to a happy ending whereby the small Japanese town of Titipu maintains its city-status, the protagonist Nanki-Poo is reinstated as heir, while also getting the girl, Yumyum, whose self-involved vanity Hannah Howie not only portrays, but celebrates. (In fact all of the ladies of Japan pulled this off with perhaps a worrying level of authenticity.) Sarah Hollinshead as the lonesome but fearsome Katisha deserves special praise for a show-stealing entrance and a voice that gave glimpses of the lonesome but fearsome Nina Simone. Guy Hughes’s tap dance routine as The Mikado got the audience’s biggest applause, but mine couldn’t but go to musicians who gave a new lease of life to WS Gilbert’s classic lyrics.

An extremely competent production of The Hot Mikado by director/choreographer Maddy Mutch, so hot it melted the audience’s hearts, not least the iciest of them (my own). I was bebop-ping all the way home.

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