Without a doubt the first pleasant surprise of the fall is the area premiere of Wright State University’s highly entertaining and fabulously choreographed “Hot Mikado,” Rob Bowman and David H. Bell’s little-known 1986 jazz-era twist on Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1885 comic opera “The Mikado.”
With great skill and efficiency, Bowman and Bell impressively dusts off this silly, thin tale of love, law and customs in the quaint, cutely named Japanese town of Titipu. Instead of taking a more familiar, traditional approach to the material and Gilbert and Sullivan’s legacy as particularly evident in Mike Leigh’s acclaimed 1999 film “Topsy-Turvy,” this duo fills their adaptation with a colorfully clever assortment of musical flavors from gospel and swing to R&B and rock and roll. By all means, the sheer power of musicianship and distinctive arrangements (catapulted by the expertise of musical director Scot Woolley’s superb orchestra) is a key factor to the show’s conceptual appeal, which brilliantly doubles as a refreshing history lesson in American music and an enjoyable, respectful homage to one of the most beloved works in the Gilbert and Sullivan canon.
Director Greg Hellems, adept at musical comedy, keeps the carefree action breezy and light (think “42nd Street” or “Crazy for You”) aided by the spectacular, Broadway-caliber contributions of ever-reliable choreographer Teressa Wylie McWilliams, who choreographed Hellems’ first-rate “Oklahoma!” last season. Here, McWilliams, in a return to form recalling her outstanding work for WSU’s 2011 production of “Hairspray,” pulls out the stops at the outset as the handsome, agile male ensemble exuberantly performs a slick, seductive and cheery version of “We Are Gentlemen of Japan,” a terrific, tone-setting opener. Her tap-happy routines continue with feverish aplomb with the scintillating, breathtaking, encore-worthy Act 1 finale and the fiery, playful duels within Act 2’s rousing “Mikado Song.”
Drew Bowen delightfully leads the proceedings as the charming Nanki-Poo, a musician in love with the innocent Yum-Yum (the lovely Bradley Farmer) who is actually betrothed to Ko-Ko (the comical Sean Jones in pure vaudeville mode). Bowen and Jones are crowd pleasers, but Farmer deserves special mention for bringing an enchanting grace and a contemporary sensibility to “Sun and I,” an Act 2 highlight and one of the finest songs ever written by Gilbert and Sullivan. This trio receives excellent support from the suave Alimamy Barrie as the Mikado, vocal powerhouse Paige Dobkins as Pitti-Sing, striking tenor Mark Beyer (“Braid the Raven Hair”) as Pish-Tush, the equally amiable Nathan Pecchia as Pooh-Bah and Bailey Rose as Peep-Bo, and the marvelously formidable Jasmine Easler as the fiery Katisha, who vows to make Nanki-Poo her husband. The exceptional Easler, recently featured in WSU’s remarkable “Fences” and conveying a sinister diva mentality recalling Evilene from “The Wiz,” delivers knockout, amazingly soulful renditions of “Hour of Gladness” and “Alone and Yet Alive” that absolutely bring down the house.
The overt beauty within this impressively produced showcase is fueled by the inviting Japanese décor of Pam Knauert Lavarnway’s set, costumer Jeremy W. Floyd’s attractive mix of Cotton Club-esque attire and gorgeous kimonos, and Matthew P. Benjamin’s evocative lighting and projections.
If you don’t have plans to catch “Hot Mikado” before it closes you need to immediately reschedule your agenda. This must-see is too hot to miss.
“Hot Mikado” continues through Nov. 9 in the Festival Playhouse of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 63 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Tickets are $22 for adults and $20 for seniors and students. For tickets or more information, call WSU box office at (937) 775-2500.