Old haunts

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  May 11, 2010

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HOT MIKADO: Gilbert & Sullivan isn’t slain by the addition of screaming horns and the Lindy hop in this multicultural updating.

Much as Gilbert and Sullivan sandwiched up-tight, law-abiding, loophole-seeking Victorian England into its ancient Japan, Hot Mikado meshes a picture-book Titipu with the Cotton Club, its zoot-suited gents and sassy, skirt-tossing ladies tapping, finger-snapping, jitterbugging, and, of course, engaging in The Mikado’s capital crime of flirting. (The ridiculous plot of the original is little changed, except that wand’ring minstrel and AWOL heir apparent Nanki-Poo’s elderly pursuer, Katisha, is transformed into a femme fatale.) The whole enterprise throbs with the near-reckless energy of the wartime and immediately post-war US. There’s even a little jingoism (not to mention a little scatting) inserted into “We Are Gentlemen of Japan.” And, yes, the songs retain their arch Victorian titles, along with their tunes, transported from 19th to 20th century by Bowman’s jazz, swing, gospel, pop, and torch arrangements.

Kate Warner’s exuberant production is lovely to look at, with its arching bridge, cherries in bloom, and Japanese-y screens serving as both portals to the town square and a frame for musical director Todd C. Gordon (in vaguely Japanese attire) as he conducts an adept jazz combo. The singers are accomplished, with Edward M. Barker’s Pooh-Bah living up to his self-billing as “the coolest cat in all of Titipu,” outsized Calvin Braxton a likably self-serving Ko-Ko, and Kennedy Reilly-Pugh a silkily tap-dancing Mikado. McCaela Donovan is a slyly sweet Yum-Yum, whose “The Sun and I” is melodious indeed. Aimee Doherty, her jazz-edged pipes ripping through “For He’s Gonna Marry Yum-Yum,” is a Pitti-Sing no one would pity. And as Katisha, Asian-American beauty Lisa Yuen boasts pipes that defy her delicate form. My only caveats are that the forcefully ingratiating production can get relentless and that Kelli Edwards’s period-evocative choreography is more gamely than effortlessly executed.

“This is the Plains: a state of mind, right, some spiritual affliction, like the Blues,” muses one of the wounded Oklahomans of August: Osage County (at the Colonial Theatre, closed) upon returning to a family homestead aptly represented on stage by a steep cutaway house whose bones have been stripped of ameliorating decoration and a place to hide. Well, the Plains are sung with a plaint that would peel paint in Tracy Letts’s 2008 Pulitzer winner, in which the Westons — vitriolic, pill-popping mom Violet, her three grown daughters, and their kin — reconvene after the patriarch goes missing. That would be erstwhile poet and “world-class alcoholic” Beverly Weston, who, quoting T.S. Eliot and John Berryman while guzzling Jim Beam, hires a Cheyenne housekeeper in the opening scene and then disappears.

Letts’s hilariously lacerating, much-lauded work may not achieve the allegoric sweep toward which it stretches, with one daughter mourning the disappearance of “this country, this America, this hubris.” But there is in the three-plus-hour play the linguistic corrosiveness of Edward Albee married to the family dysfunction (and multi-generational substance abuse) of Eugene O’Neill. Moreover, the work’s 13 vividly drawn characters, deployed over three generations, are catnip to capable performers looking for a workout. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro, this production originated at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and then leapt to Broadway, where it won Tony Awards not only for play and director but also for two of the actors. They’re not in the national touring troupe that passed through Boston, but who missed them with the monstrous marvel of 82-year-old Oscar winner Estelle Parsons on view?

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