The cream of the Oxfordshire teenage musical theatre talent pool is largely divvied up between three organisations – OYMT, MYCO and Ric-Nic – and their annual productions are highlights of the Oxford calendar. All three achieve an impressively high standard and are testament not only to the native talents of the young singers, dancers and actors but also to the amount of hard work they are willing to dedicate to perfecting their performances. Last year's OYMT production of Cats was a very hard act to follow: I can say, hand on heart, I was more blown away by their version in the Theatre at Headington, in which every single cast member was without exception utterly and individually mesmerising, than by the professional touring company at the New Theatre.
Hot Mikado was, by comparison with Cats, a challenging choice of musical. The current generation are not as familiar with the works of Gilbert & Sullivan as was the case in the 1980s, when this jazz, swing and blues adaptation of the Victorian operetta was created. I have seen Hot Mikado only once before, in a very slick, adult, strictly black-and-red production (also at the Playhouse) in which the chorus were dressed as Japanese businessmen with laptops and briefcases and Ko-Ko had to down a bottle of whiskey to get the Dutch courage to propose to Katisha in a hilariously drunken version of 'Tit Willow'.
This OYMT production was so different I could hardly believe it was the same musical! It was an absolute kaleidoscope of colour and song. Practically the only Japanese elements in this production were the furniture of the set, the fans and the lanterns. Otherwise, it was wholeheartedly American in flavour, with elements of every iconic contemporary US style incorporated in the costumes – zoot suits, cheerleader tutus, Hawaiian lei flowers, sailor suits, spats, etc. The lighting roulette-wheeled through the colour palette like a fibre-optic Christmas tree. The overall feel of the musical was of a hugely energetic celebratory flamboyant dance party, themed loosely on the Mikado.
There was some fabulous singing and dancing, and some lovely imaginative characterisations and interpretations. Yum-Yum's (Phoebe Rose) high notes in 'The Sun and I' were utterly thrilling, and Katisha (Rosie Hunt) stole the show with her commitment to her character and the raw power of her voice, especially the rich tones in 'Alone and Yet Alive'. We loved the unforgettable Ko-Ko (Finn Whelan) with his inexplicable crazily decorated scooter and his updated 'I've Got a Little List'; the clarity of voice of Pish-Tush (Alex Ansdell); the rapid role-swaps of Pooh-Bah (Edward Draper), especially his Archbishop of Titipu; the ukulele backing group on the bridge for 'Tit Willow'; Callum John's laid back monochrome Mikado; and the "Big Fish, Little Fish" version of the 'I Am So Proud' chorus.
On the whole, however, I found the acting style adopted oddly flippant – as if the entire cast had decided that WS Gilbert's topsy-turvy world was just so nonsensical there was no point in taking any of it at all seriously. Maybe this was a deliberate stylistic choice, to celebrate the music and the madness rather than the satire; but it was a little sad that treating Gilbert's lines as Buffy-style throwaway comments meant that on many occasions his comic moments didn't get the laughs they usually do. That said, it was a fantastic performance for a first night, the band of young musicians in the pit did an excellent job, the singing was superb and the dancing an invigorating spectacle.