For this welcome return, if anything they’ve turned up the heat. Diego Pitarch’s beautifully simple kabuki-inspired set of flying wooden screens embraces the whole theatre. It’s dominated by a piano (graced by Travis herself) and that knowing contrast between delicious nods to Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Japanese’ setting and Westerners playing the piece in the West informs the production. So after a serenely ritualistic Japanese prelude, the whole theatre sizzles from the moment the fourteen-strong cast sashay through the auditorium to take the stage by storm with jazz so hot it’s cool!
Richard G Jones’ fabulous lighting, a clever blend of warmth and kitsch, enhances the excitement. Revel Harwood has a flair for invention, choreographing even the instruments into glorious Busby Berkley formations – and his multi-talented cast rise wonderfully to the challenge of playing and hoofing simultaneously.
Early number "A Wand’ring Minstrel I" is transformed from a fanciful ditty into a thrilling ‘11 o’clock’ number for the whole ensemble, led by Dominic Tighe’s sexy bare-chested, Samurai-inspired Nanki-Poo.
It's followed by two hours of sexy, knowing, laugh-out-loud fun, led by Jeffrey Harmer and Karen Mann reprising their roles as a cuddly corseted Koko and a dressed-to-kill Katisha in scarlet mini kimono and fishnets, ably supported by Julian Littman’s ingratiating Pooh-Bah and Melanie Marshall’s wickedly funny larger-than-life Mikado.
And those clever, effective nods to Japanese culture continue with three of the sexiest little maids from school. Abiona Omonua’s glowing, mischievous Yum-Yum, flanked by Cassie Pearson’s blonde bombshell Pitti-Sing and Georgina Field’s daffy Peep-Bo bump and grind outrageously in their sexy schoolgirl gear. Ice-cream colour wigs, girly socks and flashes of white knickers under tiny skirts set off with the kimono’s obi belt evoke the provocatively dressed teenagers of Tokyo’s trendiest streets. Pearson raises the temperature in the auditorium in a slinky Kill Bill catsuit (eat your heart out Uma Thurman!) straight out of a manga comic and later sets off the shortest shorts and figure-hugging top with kimono sleeves.
The cast are in great voice soaring above Sarah Travis’stunning orchestrations. Omonua brings a touch of Shirley Bassey to "The Sun and I" and blends well with Tighe’s lush romantic tenor and Kit Orton’s Pish Tush rounds out the sound. A real crowd pleaser.
- Judi Herman
NOTE: The following FOUR STAR review dates from July 2006, and this production's original run at the Watermill.
Gilbert and Sullivan's 1885 hit continues to prove its longevity and versatility, delighting aficionados and new fans alike in every guise, from Jonathan Miller’s acclaimed 1930s English country house setting to this exuberantly sassy jazz, gospel and Motown makeover. It was first produced in Washington in the centenary year 1985, though it was inspired by a now lost 1930s' Hot Mikado with an all-black cast.
So welcome to the swinging streets of the town of Titipu – where the designer accessory of choice is a musical instrument and no multi-talented citizen walks when they could tap dance or sashay instead.
From the moment the 14-strong cast invade designer Diego Pitarch’s elegant evocation of Kabuki Theatre - even perching atop the grand piano revealed by his flying screens – the atmosphere is as heady as a rock concert. Richard G Jones’ fabulous lighting, a clever blend of warmth and kitsch, enhances the excitement. And those three little maids, led by Nicola Hughes’ truly scrumptious Yum-Yum, writhe in delicious harmony, making Britney Spears look tame. With their sexy schoolgirl gear, ice-cream colour wigs, tiny tunics and girly sox, they’re actually dead ringers for the provocatively dressed teenagers of Tokyo’s trendiest streets.
And indeed, director Craig Revel Horwood succeeds triumphantly in his avowed intent to keep it modern and funky with influences ranging from Manga comics to urban prince. His thrilling choreography incorporates bee bop and Busby Berkeley – and all those instruments.
This though, is no rock concert, but a witty and sophisticated fable about courtship and manners. And happily, comfortably incorporating a few appropriate updates to libretto and lyrics, the story, the characters and the wit come triumphantly through the upbeat jazz and soul of the music.
Thanks to Gary Dixon’s fine sound balance, those incisive lyrics don’t have to vie with Sarah Travis’ stunning orchestrations – a worthy follow-up to her Tony Award-winning work on Sweeney Todd. She clearly relishes the bigger cast – and the opportunity to join them onstage at the piano.
Jeffrey Harmer’s cuddly, corseted Ko-Ko is reminiscent of Mr Toad, Andrew Alexander’s blonde, bare-chested Nanki-Poo is a pop idol to scream for, and Ian Conningham’s Poo-Bah a spiv for all seasons. Karen Mann follows her blatantly sexy Mrs Lovett with an unexpectedly sympathetic Katisha, just looking for – and finding - love. Junix Inocian’s Mikado lives up to his terrific entrance, Kit Orton’s winning Welsh Pish-Tush, Helen Power’s sensationally supple Pitti-Sing and everyone else on stage enhance the infectious pleasure of this crowd-delighting evening.
- Judi Herman