"The Hot Mikado" opens the Skylight season with a mix of old and new
It's a year of both new and old for the Skylight Music Theatre, as 2017 marks the first under new artistic director Ray Jivoff, by no means a new face for fans of the company. So what better way to open a season of both change and familiarity than "The Hot Mikado," the raucous update of Gilbert and Sullivan's century-old opera which opened last weekend.
"The first show they did, I believe, was a Gilbert and Sullivan show, and over the years, they've done all the Gilbert and Sullivan stuff multiple times – and 'The Mikado' maybe ten times. But this is the first time they're doing 'The Hot Mikado,'" said actor Chris Klopatek. "So I think Ray wanted to kick off the season with a show that's a callback to old Skylight but also showing the direction he wanted to take it: fun, new, hip and exciting."
Klopatek plays the cowardly Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko in the madcap production, retelling Gilbert and Sullivan's classic opera chestnut with the comedy and music vigorously highlighted with bright, bold color. The topsy-turvy plotting stays mostly the same, but the fictitious ancient Japanese world of Titipu now comes updated to modern times, roaring with all matter of musical styles – from gospel to blues, swinging soul to scat singing – all bringing a brassy new beat to the original ditties.
That's not all that's new with the Skylight's "The Hot Mikado," however, as the production also introduces a new face to the Milwaukee stage: Jamecia Bennett, mother of "Americal Idol" finalist Paris Bennett and a powerhouse performer in her own right, singing with the three-time Grammy-winning ensemble Sounds of Blackness. She's making her Skylight debut in "Hot Mikado" as a featured performer, belting out the role of the cougar-like Katisha – as well as a special one-night-only cabaret performance with Milwaukee's own Cigarette Break at the Skylight's Bar & Bistro on Monday, Oct. 9, at 7:30 p.m.
Before the show heads into its second week of shows, we chatted with Bennett about her first go-around with Skylight and "The Hot Mikado" and uncovering the real character of Katisha.
OnMilwaukee: This is your debut at the Skylight, so what has that experience been like, finding the nuances of the space and the company?
Jamecia Bennett: Coming into the building, it was a warm feeling meeting Ray (Jivoff). Because Austene Van – the director, who is also kind of my slash best friend and sister – she had kind of prepped me before I got here. She was like, "Sis, I want you to do this show! I'm taking you out of my comfort zone!" Because my first and foremost job is my singing, so when I get into theater, I go into a whole different world. So she's like, "I want you to come over into this world." She said she was in Milwaukee and doing this show with this great group of people, and she really wanted me to do this show called "The Hot Mikado." And I'm like, "The WHAT!?" And she was like look it up. So I looked it up, and I was like, "What … is this?" (laughs)
So I came out and when I got here, I came into the building, and it was really warm. I'm a person about vibe and space, and from the moment we came into the building, it was people that weren't even involved with the show itself but they were very friendly and speaking with eye contact – I'm an eye contact person – and it was a really nice, warm feeling.
What won you over about the show itself, especially coming in as somebody who'd never really heard of "The Hot Mikado" before?
I really liked my character. I play Katisha. What I saw on YouTube was very different from how I personally play it. The songs that she's singing, when you listen to the words, she's very hurt, and she's alone. And she wants to be loved. So I feel like she's been guarded for so long because she wants so much. And you have all these young people around and all these things changing and growing before her, and she never had an opportunity to catch anything. So she wanted to use her power to get Nanki-Poo as much as possible, because she was so close to the Mikado, and I think she wanted to use her strength of being in a position for so long to say, "You know what? I'm going to get him, and he's gonna be my husband. Because that's just what it is. Whether he loved her or not, no one's going to choose me, so I'm going to choose somebody." I use that more so to define the character.
And with Ko-Ko toward the end, it made so much sense with the direction I was going. Because now, I was able to make it make sense, because now, with him, even though he doesn't love me, he gave me way more attention than Nanki-Poo. Whether it was fate or not, it made Katisha feel like somebody is interested in me, and I feel more of a woman than I'm trying to be behind this mask of anger and defeating anything that comes my way. For the first time, she felt like a woman; he made me feel like a woman with all the things he was doing, whether right or wrong.
Was that the biggest challenge, figuring out that character? Or was it something in the music – or something else?
Well, the music for sure isn't a challenge, because that's my everyday thing. Coming into musical theater, I usually get my jobs from being in the singing world and having the experience that I have.
The most challenging thing is being able to make sure that you are cohesive with the rest of the cast to make sure that it all makes sense and that you're fine-tuning yourself to everybody. I always tell people I go into the theater world to stay grounded, to keep my structure and to always know how to work with people. In my singing world, I'm in control, and I can do whatever I want. I have no structure; I'm able to do and say anything because I am the boss. But over here, I have to stay structured and be cohesive with people. There's no big I's or little You's. You are playing your character to the best of its ability, but you're also being mindful of the rest of the cast, that you're supportive.
What's your favorite song from the show, either to sing or just to listen to?
Probably "Alone And Yet Alive."
Why that one?
I like the words that are being said. I think it defines Katisha, and it defines my character the most. It talks about her being alone but finding her strength and wanting to know answers but not being able to get them. There's so much depth to that song.
Why is now the right time for "The Hot Mikado"?
One, because it's a heavily diverse show. It's a good way to show all colors working together.
And what's happening now in the world today is that we're taking old and making it new – for everything. You listen to songs today – perfect example: Mary J. Blige did a song called "Sweet Thing," and my kids were like, "I love this song! Mary J. Blige is amazing!" And I'm like, "Yeah … that's a Chaka Khan song." (laughs) And they haven't heard the Chaka Khan version; they're like, "Who's Chaka?" So I play a little of it, and they're like, "Oh my god!"
So "The Hot Mikado" is the same type of deal. We had the "Mikado" of the past, and a lot of people were saying that it crossed some lines back in the day. But I think now, we're able to cross those lines, and we're able to add comedic gestures to them without feeling apologetic for them. It's a way to present it to the young people, the arts from the old, and bring it to a new sense so young people can begin to understand the arts, transforming the old that people probably wouldn't understand for this day and age.
And not just young people – for people who aren't theater people. We're getting more people to start coming to theater because you can't even go to the movies anymore because everything's on television. Back in the day, people got super dressed up to go to the movies, and we don't have that anymore. So this is a great show for people to get dressed up and see a great show. Because it's time to bring those times back, where family can come out or couples can go out and do something again at a theater show and feel good about the money they spent. They're going to come in feeling one way, but leave definitely on a high.
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