REVIEW: Hot Mikado (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

 

Nanki Poo, Zoot Suits and Dancing – Oh my!

 

(L-R) Andy Lupp (Pish Tush), Todd Kryger (Pooh-Bah) and Stephen Schellhardt (Ko Ko) star in HOT MIKADO at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace through October 3.

   
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
   
Hot Mikado
  
Written by Gilbert and Sullivan
Directed by
David Bell
at
Drury Lane Oakbrook, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through October 3  |  tickets: $31-$45  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

If imitation is the highest compliment, in 1939 Gilbert and Sullivan‘s The Mikado was praised to the skies: no less than two all-black, all-jazz versions from Chicago and from New York played opposite each other on Broadway. (Alas, they beat each other to a draw, ticket-wise.) It must have seemed as if America would swing its way out of the Depression, with some help from two dead Victorian males.

HOT_MIKADO--Aurelia_WilliamsA Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre revival (Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre "premiered" this version in 1993), Hot Mikado is director/choreographer David H. Bell‘s sizzling homage to those ever-young jitterbug versions. (Purists may carp but then nothing in Sullivan’s music was any more "Japanese" than are these jazz translations, while Gilbert’s satire is timeless.) This time it’s a proscenium presentation and that gives it even more depth and scope than the original arena production.

Retaining the topsy-turvy tale of how Nanki Poo, the Mikado’s son who poses as a wandering minstrel, falls in love with the aggressively demure Yum-Yum; pursued by the voracious harridan Katisha, he’s almost executed by his rival Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. The Mikado’s arrival causes instant confusion, then the requisite resolution.

Based on a successful 1986 production that Bell first mounted at Ford’s Theatre in Washington that has gone on to play London’s West End, Dublin and Prague, Hot Mikado is blessed with music director Michael Mahler‘s period-perfect musical Midas touch. It also has one of the loveliest looks of a Drury Lane show: Marcus Stephens’ set enchants illuminated Japanese footbridge, pavilion and cherry trees with leaves of fans and Japanese lanterns. Jesse Klug lights it like a rainbow in heat, though Jeremy Floyd‘s time-traveling costumes would be bright in the dark.

True to its name, Hot Mikado sizzles with David Bell‘s Lindy-hopping, be-bopping, high-stepping dances; dolled up in Zoot suits or bodice bursters, the all-dancing cast turn the Mikado’s entrance into a tap-dancing tour-de-force (led by Ted Levy’s inexhaustible Bojangles imitation in the title role) and hoof up a storm to "Swing a Merry Madrigal." "Three Little Maids" here becomes a hep-swinging Andrew Sisters ballad. The red-hot first act finale comes straight from Stork Club heaven, with a hint of gospel and a highly anachronistic allusion to disco.

 

HOT_MIKADO--Ted_Levy HOT_MIKADO--Devin_DeSantis_and_Summer_Smart

Bell’s troupe (which includes Susan Moniz, who was Yum-Yum 17 years ago in Lincolnshire) sing and dance into a lather. A throwback to classic vaudeville (as veteran Ross Lehman was in Lincolnshire), Stephen Schellhardt gives Ko-Ko alternate touches of Groucho and, even, in his crying fits, Stephen Colbert showing some sentiment. Surprisingly self-effacing even at his hammiest, Schellhardt shows the gentle wistfulness of Keaton and Chaplin and his double takes show stopwatch timing.

As the cavorting cuties, Devin DeSantis’ crooning Nanki-Poo and Summer Naomi Smart’s demure but designing Yum-Yum bring new life to "This Is What I’ll Never Do." Todd M. Kryger oozes pomposity out of Pooh-Bah and Moniz’ Pitti-Sing belts to beat the Big Band.

But the stand-out show-stopper is easily Aurelia Williams, a powerhouse to equal Felicia Fields in Bell’s Lincolnshire debut. Playing the awesome Katisha as a blues-wailing big mamma, she tears the heart out of "The Hour of Gladness" and wipes the set with "Alone and Yet Alive." No surprise that Williams got the biggest ovation at the curtain call: She supplies the heat in Hot Mikado.

Pizzazz-packed as it is, it’s still possible to wish that, color-blind casting aside, Hot Mikado was, like its original, all-black (instead of, as here, fitfully integrated). It’s weird to hear white performers sing what you know would be cooked to a crisp by a black cast. Soul singing, especially of blues standards, will belong culturally to some folks more than others. But then Marriott’s production was equally opportunistic, so I’m resigned to it.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
 
 

REVIEW: Harper Regan (Steep Theatre)

Kendra Thulin shines in U.S. premiere

Harper 3 

Steep Theatre Company presents:

Harper Regan

 

By Simon Stephens
Directed by Robin Witt
Through Feb. 27 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

My long-suffering husband, whose theatrical taste runs to comedies and musicals, tends to react to the odder dramas I drag him to with a question, "Why did they produce this play?"

I can’t answer on behalf of Steep Theatre Company, whose U.S. premiere of the quirky, dysfunctional-family drama Harper Regan is one of a raft of British plays in Chicago this season, but I can make some guesses. One is that Simon Stephens is one of England’s hottest playwrights, and the chance to introduce one of his newer works — "Harper Regan" premiered in 2008 at London’s National Theatre — had to be very Harper 1tempting. Another is that it has three very juicy roles for women and a lot of other parts that could be doled out to ensemble members. (Having grown accustomed to the shrunken casts of these straitened times, it’s refreshing to see a different actor for every part in a play, though several male roles might easily have been doubled.)

Exquisitely acted and painstakingly directed as it is, however, Harper Regan may be more satisfying for its cast than for audiences. The plot follows the breaking up or breaking out, depending on how you look at it, of Harper Regan, 40-ish, middle-class and troubled. Her father is dying, her boss is a creep, she hates her job, her husband’s out of work, she’s not getting along with her 17-year-old daughter, they had to move from her northern England hometown to unfamiliar suburban London, she’s not speaking to her mother, and she is deeply insecure.

In an exceptional performance in the title role, Kendra Thulin shows us Harper’s discomfort and self-doubt in every line of her body, cringing and hesitating as, having asked her supercilious employer (Alex Gillmor) for time off to visit her ailing father, she listens to his hectoring refusal. Later, apologizing to her daughter for some sharp words, she says, "I’m so weird, aren’t I?"

Harper 2Caroline Neff is intense and believable as Harper’s nerdy, conflicted daughter, more comfortable with her iPod than her mother. Chelsea Warren’s costumes, notably for Harper and her daughter and mother, show a fine attention to detail.

Act I lags somewhat as the initial facts of Harper’s life slowly emerge, mostly in talky monologues and peculiar conversations she has with unsettling strangers. At last, she leaves home, not telling anyone she’s going. In Act II, we get more disturbing revelations: Why her husband can’t find work. Why they had to move. Why Harper and her mum are at odds. And, most importantly, we see that Harper is even weirder and more unstable than she seems.

Melissa Reimer puts in a strong performance as Harper’s estranged mother. Peter Moore performs sensitively as her down-and-out husband. Curtis M. Jackson is realistic as a teenager she meets near home, while Dan Flannery seems stiff as an older man she encounters during her time away. Julia Siple, Jonathan Edwards, Brendan Melanson and Adam El-Sharkawi fill out the cast.

Marcus Stephens’ stark, leaf-strewn concrete set echoes the harshness of Harper’s world, yet seems inappropriate for many of the indoor scenes, among many off-kilter aspects of this unlikely psychodrama.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Notes: Adult language and themes.  All photos by Lee Miller

WITH ENSEMBLE MEMBERS Jonathan Edwards, Alex Gillmor, Brendan Melanson, Peter Moore, Caroline Neff, Melissa Riemer and Julia Siple
AND Adam El-Sharkawi, Dan Flannery, Curtis Jackson and Kendra Thulin
PRODUCTION MANAGER Julia Siple* STAGE MANAGER Jon Ravenscroft SCENIC DESIGN Marcus Stephens LIGHTING DESIGN Brandon Wardell COSTUME DESIGN Chelsea Warren COSTUME ASST Gwen Smuda SOUND DESIGN Matthew Chapman PROPS DESIGN Jesse Gaffney DIALECT COACH Eva Brenneman DRAMATURG Gemma Hobbs            *denotes company member