By Bill Beard
“Gilbert and Sullivan Societies” all over England serve as theater producing groups devoted to the hilarious hijinks of the 19th-century British comic operetta writers W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. The British still love the zany tongue-twister lyrics and crispy, bouncy melodies that characterize such works as The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore and, of course, The Mikado. They were sort of the Rodgers and Hammerstein of Great Britain, and they influenced the development of musical theater throughout the world.
Gilbert’s clever lyrics and topsy-turvy plot gimmicks, along with Sullivan’s fanciful music, ranging from lovely ballads to hilarious patter songs, made for some of the cleverest parodies ever written. They “spoofed” everything…particularly British society and politics, from peasants to aristocracy, often setting their plots in some foreign or imaginary location. For example, by setting the scene for The Mikado in the exotic little village of Titipu in Japan, they were able to disguise their satirical parodies of British institutions and traditions.
The production currently delighting audiences at Drury Lane Oak Brook is itself a parody of the original Gilbert and Sullivan, here called Hot Mikado, and most appropriately. It is filled with spicy singing, smoldering passion and some really hot dancing.
[Note: When a slip of paper fell out of my program that read “This production was directed and choreographed by David H. Bell,” and I saw that the program already noted “Directed by David H. Bell,” I wondered why the special notice. Let me assure you that after the fantastic, lengthy opening dance number, one of the most impressive I’ve seen in a long time, I was thrilled and thankful for that little slip of paper, because Bell’s choreography is brilliant. He deserves every kudo we can give him.]
Bell is the original creator of Hot Mikado; he adapted the book and lyrics for the first production some years ago at Washington, D.C.’s Ford Theatre, creating a hit show that has since been performed all around the world. Now, he has put together a fantastically-talented cast and design staff, and should be in line for another Jeff Award, his 12th.
Heading this sterling cast as Ko Ko (the Lord High Executioner) is the droll and adroit comic character actor Stephen Schellhardt, whose antics become funnier and funnier throughout the show. His handling of both “I’ve Got a Little List” in act one and “Tit Willow” in the second, is musical comedy tradition at its best.
Ko Ko’s nemesis and tormenter, and eventually his bride, Katisha, is played by the tall and beautiful Aurelia Williams from New York, who is the perfect match for Schellhardt. She takes the stage and makes it her own right from her first entrance, announcing: “I am an acquired taste!” Their duet at the end of the show would be thoroughly appreciated by Messrs. G and S.
The young, somewhat ill-fated lovers are Nanki-Poo (running away from his fixed betrothal to Katisha) and Yum Yum (destined to a forced marriage with Ko Ko) are played by two of Chicago’s finest: Devin DeSantis, back from New York, whom I reviewed a few years ago in another Gilbert and Sullivan Broadway adaptation, The Pirates of Penzance, also a hit at Drury Lane Oak Brook; and the marvelous Summer Smart, whom I have loved in the title role of Drury Lane’s Sweet Charity, and in the very different role of Clara in Marriott Lincolnshire’s superb production of The Light in the Piazza.
Add the fine talents of Susan Moniz, (who was an excellent Paula in Oak Brook’s The Goodbye Girl) as Pitti-Sing, and Julia Black, in her Drury Lane debut as Peep-Bo, making up the trio of “Three Little Maids from School”; plus, the outstanding work of Andy Lupp as Pish-Tish, Todd Kryger as Pooh-Bah and Ted Louis Levy as The Mikado, and you have about as fine a cast as you can find.
But once again, this show has a magnificent ensemble, with six Gentlemen of Japan, whose opening dance is absolutely astounding, exhilarating (in fabulous zoot suits by costume designer Jeremy W. Floyd); plus, four equally talented female singer-dancers, especially the stunning Amanda Kroiss.
The spectacular setting by Scenic Designer Marcus Stephens, with lighting by Jesse King, was massive, extremely colorful and utterly stunning.
You have until Oct. 3 to get to Drury Lane Oak Brook to see this superb production of Hot Mikado. Call (630) 530-0111 or visit drurylaneoakbrook.com.
From the Sept. 22-28, 2010 issue