Last year I said I was exhausted from Wright State’s 3 hour shows, which generated a kind of quiet controversy. I saw some vague references to it in some Facebook posts, got a couple of messages about my pointed thoughts, and even heard about again after seeing THE HOT MIKADO yesterday. I wasn’t criticizing necessarily, but it was more an observation (and personal preference) about not always wanting to sit through heavy, long, old-fashioned shows.
Well, THE HOT MIKADO is an old-fashioned show but what Greg Hellems and Scot Wooley have done with this production is nothing short of miraculous. The book is full of pothole sized plot holes and stupid ideas. Flirting – yes, flirting – has been outlawed in the city and the Lord High Executioner must behead someone soon in order to appease their leader, The Mikado. Love, loss, and laughter abounds. Set in a fictional version of Japan with characters named things like Nanki-Poo, Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, Peep Bo, Pish-Tush, Pooh-Bah, and Ko-Ko this Gilbert and Sullivan piece could be considered extraordinarily racist. Thankfully, this production has enough self-awareness to make light of itself throughout. No one – including the actors or musicians – are taking themselves too seriously.
There is, though, some serious talent on this stage. Drew Bowen plays Nanki-Poo, a man on the run trying to find the love of his life, Yum-Yum (Bradley Farmer), who is now betrothed to the very odd Ko-Ko (Sean Jones), who by the way is the Executioner. (He’s not prepared to behead anyone, though, for he hasn’t had enough practice). Katisha (Jasmine Easler) shows up, in pursuit of her Nanki-Poo, determined to capture him and take him back home to be her husband (more like a house boy). Trust me, it’s easier to follow than it sounds. Bowen is charming on stage; his bewilderment at the crazy rules of this city is expressed on his face, but his love for Yum-Yum is even more apparent. He’s a talented vocalist and a really great dancer – I wish he’d gotten to do more of the latter in this show. Farmer is a long-time Dayton favorite of the community theatre scene and now with her training at WSU, she’s showing what she can really do. She has the voice of a Disney princess and a unique charisma all her own. Other vocal standouts are seniors Mark Beyer (“Pish-Tush”) and Paige Dobkins (“Pitti-Sing”). When The Mikado (Alimamy Barrie) shows up, the tap-dancing really takes off. His microphone was unfortunately full of static, though he isn’t here to show off his acting or even his singing. He lights up the Festival Playhouse stage with a dynamite tap performance that spans a great production number. I loved it.
The real stars of this show, however, are the dynamic duo of Sean Jones and Jasmine Easler. Jones has been one of my favorites for a long time; standout roles I’ve enjoyed him in have been comedic in nature: Andre in “Phantom of the Opera,” Ali Hakim in “Oklahoma,” and Leaf Coneybear in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” He’s shown some tremendous dramatic (and vocal) abilities, too, though as Younger Brother in “Ragtime,” Alvin in “The Story of My Life,” and in an adaption of “Good Will Hunting.” But none of these roles come close to this hilarious, unique, and quirky characterization of “Ko-Ko.” He’s perfect and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. The way he plays this moronic jester of a man is inspired; I really can’t say enough good things about his performance. It could easily be played one-dimensionally. But here Jones physical, ironic, and funny, but he’s brilliant because of the warmth he exudes. This character has heart and in my mind, Sean Jones has the talent to be a major star.
He’s not the only one, though. Jasmine Easler (“Katisha”) blows onto the stage in Act One and takes over. If Farmer has a Disney princess quality, Easler is a perfect Disney villain. Chewing up the scenery (and in a show like this, that’s a compliment!) she commands attention even before she opens her mouth to sing. And when she does that, it’s over. What. A. Voice. Her “diva-off” with Dobkins near the end of Act One is a highlight of this show and I could watch and listen to that over and over again. When Easler sings “Alone and Yet Alive” in Act Two before teaming up with Jones to knock the socks off of “Beauty in the Bellow,” I nearly melted in my seat. This is a young woman with unlimited potential.
I’m hopeful the students of WSU understand the privilege they have to work with a man like Scot Wooley. After this show is done, he’ll be musically directing (and accompanying) “Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Story” at the Playhouse in the Park. He’s amazing and the music in this show is incredible. Hellems and his choreographer, Teresa Wylie McWilliams, maximize the stage and the talents of these performers by giving them interesting things to do physically despite such an absurd story. Pam Knauert Lavarnway’s set is functional, interesting, and has a Japanese flair without being over the top.
I went into this show skeptical; its old, it’s a silly story, and I wasn’t sure how they would pull it off. But Wright State has once again proven why they are an underrated musical theatre program. There’s still another week of performances for this show; please go see it. It’s a fun romp through a classic musical, updated enough to be interesting, with great music, funny performances, and some of the best tap dancing you’ll see in this area. Plus, it’s not three hours long! THE HOT MIKADO is hot hot hot!
THE HOT MIKADO runs through November 9th in the Festival Playhouse at Wright State University in Dayton. Tickets and more information can be found by clicking here or by calling the box office at (937) 775-2500. Up next is “Romeo and Juliet” in their black box space and in the spring is PETER PAN starring Bruce Cromer as Captain Hook.