42nd Street Moon’s ‘Hot Mikado’ does the best it can with an outdated musical

42nd Street Moon/Courtesy

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In 2019, there are many things that should be put to rest. Crocs as a non-ironic fashion choice. Calling your boyfriend “daddy.” Dabbing. 1986 musical “Hot Mikado” may be one of these things, but theater company 42nd Street Moon tries its hardest to smooth over the musical’s more problematic issues.

The musical itself has an interesting backstory. Back in the 1980s, writers David H. Bell and Rob Bowman were trying to find material from the 1939 Broadway musical “The Hot Mikado,” which starred famous entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. After not being able to find much surviving material, the duo created their own interpretation of what the 1930s musical would have been like.

A jazzy adaptation of the famed Gilbert and Sullivan opera “The Mikado,” “Hot Mikado” follows trumpet player Nanki-Poo (Jean-Paul Jones) as he returns to the town of Titipu — a fictional town in Japan — as he searches for his lost love, Yum-Yum (Lucca Troutman), who he learns is engaged to be married to Ko-Ko (Jaron Vesely), the lord high executioner. Kooky antics ensue on Nanki-Poo’s journey to marry Yum-Yum, antics that would only ensue in a town with a name as silly as  Titipu. Storywise, it is pretty on point with “The Mikado,” albeit with a much more comedic tone.

It is hard to critique the cultural insensitivity of the story without tracing it back to its original source, since most of the structural elements come from Gilbert and Sullivan. The character names are blatantly caricaturistic and the Japanese element of the story is an exoticized background for these white creators to play with. But “Hot Mikado” at least is self-aware of the story’s inherent problems, with many meta-humor moments making fun of the actors playing Japanese characters when most of them are not Japanese. Yet there are moments when you wonder if they are trying to assuage the problem or make it worse, such as a number with lyrics spouting out a bunch of Americanized Japanese words, such as “benihana” and “teriyaki.”

That is not to say that the 42nd Street Moon company does not try its hardest to overlook the fundamental issues of the story. With the campiness ramped up to an extreme, the performers don’t try to take the story or themselves too seriously, which in and of itself pokes fun at the problems. (Grandstander of the show goes to Vesely as Ko-Ko, who wonderfully hams it up so much his performance shouldn’t be considered kosher.) Full of zany and upbeat energy, the cast does what it can to remedy the show’s issues without changing a line of its original source. 

Although the story and setting come from questionable creative license, the production itself is excellent. The colorful costumes, whimsical choreography and gorgeous set all add to the fun and goofy vibe of the performances. The stacked cast is filled with seriously good belters whose voices are perfect for the show’s jazzy and gospel tunes. Michelle Ianiro’s Katisha has pipes that even the biggest divas on Broadway would envy and Branden Noel Thomas as the stately Mikado steals the show, despite only appearing in the second act, with a commanding yet comical presence that makes you know it’s only a matter of time before you see his name in lights.

Director Jeffrey Polk steered “Hot Mikado” in the best direction possible when bringing the musical to the 42nd Street Moon stage, avoiding the musical’s cultural missteps by branding it as two hours of “silly nonsense” for the audience to enjoy without thinking too much into it. But if the only way to enjoy a musical is to bury its problems under comedic self-deprecation, maybe it’s time to put that musical to rest.

Contact Julie Lim at [email protected].