(July 24, 2006)

Live, on Stage and Screens

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

They call it "hybrid theater," but if what's onstage at Westchester Broadway Theatre is any indication, it won't hold a charge.

"Hot Mikado" opened last week in a production that includes huge video screens for simulcasts of the action. It also includes a mediocre ensemble of dancers, two love interests with absolutely no chemistry and acoustics that make it hard to hear even 20 feet from the stage.

WBT co-founder Bill Stutler, in a rare speech from the stage, said the theater was trying a "bold experiment" with the screens in an effort to claim the key 20-to-45-year-old demographic that simply doesn't attend live theater in the age of the iPod.

It's a case of innovate or perish, he said. Things are that bad.

They didn't get much better when the house lights went down.

"Hot Mikado" is David Bell's creative reimagining of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta about an emperor (The Mikado); his son, Nanki-Poo, and the girl he loves, Yum-Yum; the Lord High Executioner, who also loves her, Ko-Ko; and Katisha, the woman who loves the emperor's son.

Bell keeps the action in Japan (a running joke), but it's now a Japan full of zoot-suited, finger-popping hepcats. The music swings, the choreography is fluid and the playwright, on hand in Elmsford to direct and choreograph, does a fine job of presenting pretty stage pictures.

In the end, however, it's an unsatisfying evening, as the whole enterprise seems to lack a heart.

Act 1 was so uninspired - with no sparks between the romantic leads and a shaky ensemble, with one dancer in particular regularly a half-beat behind - that my gaze did wander to the video screens occasionally. The images were dark - the subtlety of Andrew Gmoser's stage lighting was lost in the translation to light-hungry video - and more often in a long shot, not the promised close-up.

The cameras were discreetly in the aisles, offering no new angle on the action; when an actor turned upstage, the audience got a close-up of his back. How is that innovation? A third camera, in the lighting booth at the back of the theater, seemed to go unused.

The evening's most infuriating moment came early in Act 2, when Sarah Darling, as a remarkably bland Yum-Yum, sang the solo "The Sun and I" not to the audience but directly to the cameras. She'd sing a verse to the stage-right camera and turn to sing the refrain to the stage-left camera. Yoo-hoo! Yum-Yum! Remember us? The audience?

At the outset, director Bell had several things going for him.

As Ko-Ko the executioner, Jay Russell channels Phil Silvers, an opportunist in a tough spot. If he doesn't execute someone soon, he'll have to go under the sword himself.

Russell mugs for the audience and those cameras ("Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up") and knows where he is - a dinner theater - making comments about the chicken and suggesting the fish next time, telling the crew to reward a compliant audience member ("Give that guy a peach Melba").

The other standout is Ted Levy as The Mikado, who somehow manages to get the show started with an Act 2 showstopper.

His tap solo is played to full effect. He tells the appreciative audience "not yet" when they begin to clap at several points, and "now" when he's nearing the end. His tapping is first-rate, his stage presence unmistakable.

And that is precisely the point: I can't tell you what Russell or Levy looked like on the video screens, because their performances were so captivating I didn't take my eyes off them. They had such presence, were so at ease, that they commanded attention. If they were trying hard, it didn't show. Talent will out.

The sound is soapy. The actors wear body mikes, but it's as if their mikes are covered in gauze or turned way down.

Stutler and co-founder Bob Funking have been at this for 30 years. It's their money. They can put video monitors at each table if they'd like. Perhaps to compensate for the poor acoustics they could provide subtitles. But it won't bring younger audiences to shows like "Hot Mikado" or even the next offering, "The Full Monty."

Better to invest in improvements to the acoustics, with sound-enhancing tiles to mask the I-beams and corrugated ceiling. Perhaps they should take a page from the theater's youth group and do rock operas like "Tommy" once a year to build a younger audience.

In his announcement at the top of the show, Stutler said he hoped the experiment would "get talk going."

He got his wish.

At intermission, when patrons were being asked to cast ballots about the experiment, one middle-aged patron said, "It's too dark to see what's on the screen."

An older woman said, "We're too close to the screen."

Another woman, in the target 20-to-45 group, put a finer point on it, calling the screens "a repugnant insult."

I don't know that I'd summon the Lord High Executioner just yet: WBT is open to innovation, which is a great sign. Finding the right innovation takes time.

Just think how long it took to get those Priuses on the road.

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