The School of Theatre and Dance jazzes up opera with ‘Hot Mikado’

The cast of “Hot Mikado” rehearses Wednesday for opening night Oct. 24, 2014.

Brittany Rees

Lights dimmed in the E. Turner Stump Theatre, narrowing to a single spotlight left-stage. While a halo of blonde curls framed her face and light reflected off her silver dance shoes, Lindsay Simon began to sing.

Simon is the female lead in the upcoming School of Theatre and Dance musical “Hot Mikado.” Set to debut Friday, Oct. 24, the cast of the musical has been rehearsing fives days a week in preparation.

“It takes a lot of work,” Simon said of the musical. No stranger to Kent’s productions, Simon, a junior musical theater major, also starred as Billie in the September production “Babes in Arms” and had an ensemble role in the Kent State’s spring production of “Legally Blonde: The Musical.”

“This is a lot harder,” Simon said. “I had been watching ‘Legally Blonde’ since I was a kid. I listened to the music from the musical for fun. But when we heard we were doing ‘Hot Mikado,’ everyone went, ‘Huh?’ We knew about ‘The Mikado,’ but there wasn’t a whole lot we knew about ‘Hot Mikado.’”

Simon will be performing alongside male lead Kyle Kemph, who played Val in “Babes in Arms” and Emmett in “Legally Blonde.”

“ I am willing to bet that 99 percent of our audience has never even heard of ‘Hot Mikado,’” Kemph said. “But that’s what makes it so exciting. Being able to create a character using absolutely no other influence other than your own interpretation is a dream.”

 Set in feudal Japan and based on the opera, “The Mikado,” Kemph and Simon say the jazz musical “Hot Mikado” is more difficult to pull off than contemporary shows.

“Contemporary theater is something us theater kids listen to all the time; it’s what plays in my car,” Simon said. “But we don’t often look back at stuff from the 1940s.”

“Hot Mikado” was originally debuted on Broadway in 1939 as a jazz interpretation of the Victorian opera “The Mikado.” Simon plays female lead Yum-Yum, a young Japanese maid betrothed to a man she doesn’t love and unable to marry the man she does. Kemph plays Nanki-Poo, the son of Japanese royalty who disguises himself as a musician and falls in love with Yum-Yum.

“It brings a lot of fun and chaos and mistaken identity to the stage,” said Amy Fritsche, director of the musical and professor of musical theater. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Though “The Mikado” was written in 1885, more than 50 years before “Hot Mikado” was written, the two shows are almost identical.

“It’s actually all the same lyrics and all the same dialogue as ‘The Mikado.’ It has all the same words in the libretto, which are the words of the opera,” Fritsche said. “But the way that it’s put together, the style of it is 1940s jazz and swing.”

Each semester, the school chooses a specific style to help develop its students. This semester, it’s chosen to expose the performers to the popular jazz style of the 1940s.

“It’s really important we teach our students about different genres and styles,” theater professor Terri Kent said. Kent was the director of the school’s fall production of the 1940s musical “Babes in Arms.”

“Next semester, I’ll be directing ‘My Heart is a Drum,’ which is an entirely new musical,” Kent said. “That will teach the kids something different too, being a part of an original cast, helping create the show.”

“Hot Mikado” will be the School of Theater and Dance’s last fall theater production of the semester. The new musical, “My Heart is a Drum,” will debut Feb. 20.

 Tickets to any production at the E. Turner Stump Theatre are free to students.

Contact Brittany Rees at [email protected].