THEATRE; They should Ko-Ko

Hot Mikado Queen's Theatre, London
When Kevin Kline swung from a mast in 1981, announcing how glorious it was to be a pirate king, he wasn't the first to put some pep into Gilbert & Sullivan. In 1938, a black cast, including Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, performed The Hot Mikado on Broadway. When David H Bell and Rob Bowman decided to revive it, they could not find the original lyrics and orchestrations, and so wrote their own, complete with boogie-woogie runs and FDR jokes. The fun starts right away, with a gang of hipsters in lime, fuchsia and tangerine zoot suits slinking out to stare the audience down. Then they whip out what look like flick-knives, which, with a snap, become fans for the gentlemen of Japan.

In tune with today's liberal multiculturalism, Bell's production has a few white actors, including a charming Paul Manuel as Nanki-Poo. (His father, the Mikado, coolly explains, "there's not much family resemblance".) On the female side as well, the casting alone does away with the coy, prissy sexlessness of G & S and their assumption that women over 40 are hideous viragos. Paulette Ivory, a delectable teddy-clad Yum-Yum, anticipates her marriage by wriggling voluptuously through "The Sun and I". Sharon Benson's Katisha has clearly stayed unmarried because she is too much woman for the men of Titipu. Mae West couldn't improve on the way she tells us about her lovely left shoulder blade. The jitterbugging Little Maids shake everything shakeable and the arrangements are saucy and sensual - "Braid the raven hair", as close as G & S ever get to foreplay, gets a lot closer as a rhumba.

A less staid Mikado actually works better on a psychological level, if G & S have such a thing. When Katisha consents to marry Ko-Ko after he woos her with "Tit-Willow", we don't have to believe that she has been won by the poignant story. We can see that she realises this sunny little guy will always make her laugh. Ross Lehman plays Ko-Ko as a throwback to Ed Wynn or Eddie Cantor, an innocent in round glasses and a hat with a pulled-down brim. His Lord High Executioner is generally found in a 45-degree angle, as he tries to get someone to pay attention to him, or strikes a propitiously comic pose.

In a vocally strong cast, Benson's rich, Aretha Franklyn-style delivery is matched by the Pitti-Sing of Alison Jiear, a soul-sister under the skin. One's rapture is modified just a bit by the lack of sweetness, a slightly amateurish quality to some of the acting, and the length of a few of the dance sequences (the performers have the vitality of the Nicholas Brothers, but the choreography, though accurate, lacks invention).

Hot Mikado offers something for both Gilbert & Sullivan fanatics and those who think their whole output isn't worth eight bars of Guys and Dolls. My guest, who practically heads the G & S Purity League, agreed afterwards that any Mikado was seriously lacking without a Katisha who could get down and boogie on "Derry, Derry, Derry".

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Rhoda Koenig