With all the liberties that have been taken with Gilbert and Sullivan – from the Jonathan Miller 1920s art deco staging at English National Opera now nearing its 26th year of revival, to Sasha Regan’s free-form all male Pirates of Penzance from the Union Theatre currently touring Australia – you might wonder why anyone would specifically choose to revive the 1986 Hot Mikado rather than take a fresh swipe at the format.

Based on a 1939 all-black version which featured Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, which they had only heard about, not seen, David H. Bell and Rob Bowman created a new adaptation for Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, where Bell was artistic director. It was programmed only for three months but has since been revived by countless regional and amateur companies. It’s also had two excellent recent British airings, a musically strong version by the Durham Company at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011, and a choreographically-led production and tour from the Watermill Theatre directed by Craig Revel Horwood.

It would be both impertinent and inaccurate to suggest that under Robert McWhir’s indefatigable stewardship, the Landor ever gives less than its best in mounting stage musicals, and if this production is marginally less magical than recent successes like Ragtime and particularly Curtains, it’s partly the fault of the material – although on press night after only one preview, this show did feel hasty and under-rehearsed.

Disguised as a musician in the town band, Japanese princeling Nanki-Poo falls in love with Titipu totty Yum Yum. To avoid the death penalty for flirting, she’s betrothed to an elderly stinker and so, unbeknownst to her, is Titipu – to a court matron called Katisha who arrives to claim her promised husband and threatens to expose him as the son of the Mikado. As a satire on politics and the law, it’s moderately amusing, but at times it feels as though the cast are selling it too hard.

Hot Mikado fires up Sullivan’s music by setting each number as swing, jazz, blues or torch song, but the orchestrations are leadenly prescriptive and, 25 years on, feel less than spontaneous unless the singers are genuine soul divas or Cab Calloway crooners and the band “feel the jazz”. There’s a nice device of a radio drama show in which the cast make the sound effects and organise the action, but when it melts away once the plot is established, it seems lost as a motif.

Among the principals, Mark Daley is charming as the disguised saxophonist Nanki-Poo, although he never picks up the instrument, but Victoria Farley is too brittle as his bride Yum-Yum. The all-purpose politician “Lord High Everything Else” Pooh-Bah is played by Nathaniel Morrison on exemplary form, and he hits all the marks for both comedy and musical interpretation. Ian Mowat as Ko-Ko gives a broad comedy performance, but pretty much all on one level: it’s a mistake, particularly in party conference season, not to topicalise his I’ve Got A Little Listnumber. Finally, Lucyelle Cliff is a finely fierce Pitti-Sing with a powerful mezzo voice, and Piers Bate makes a good impression in his professional debut as the general factotum Pish-Tush.

When the choreography explodes, as in the first act finale, it’s energetic and entertaining, but these high points are in contrast other moments in the show, when some of the ensemble have pitching problems with their solo lines, or when dance moves are fudged.

Given that this is first and foremost a jazz show, it seems extraordinary to dispense with the brass and woodwind from the band: although billed in the programme the trumpeter and reed player were culled at the last minute. A touch of growling brass might help musical director Michael Webborn to further inspire the cast to let rip.

Date reviewed: Friday 12th October 2012

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.