At the risk of sounding like a loser at a Vegas spelling bee, I am a serious eye roller. Like a roulette wheel on an off night, each circulation marks the extent of my displeasure. The other night, I was really taking my peepers for a spin. Judging from such ocular proof, you might have thought that more than eyeballs were about to roll. Indeed, it seemed as if I were going to face the Lord High Executioner himself. Instead, we were merely going to a production of The Hot Mikado. I just couldn’t warm to the idea of going camp on a classic that seems least in need of burlesque—or Berlesques, for that matter. Not that this stopped middle-aged troupers like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Groucho Marx to play “Three Little Maids” (as part of a war relief benefit broadcast); but, at least, those tuning in were spared the visuals.
If I was less than enthusiastic, it was mainly on account of Charley’s Aunt. That dubious Victor/Victorian dowager had way too many nephews—and “they’d none of them be missed, they’d none of them be missed.” Cross-dressing has long been on the none too little list of circus and sideshow acts that are more of a source of irritation than of hilarity. One strategically placed banana peel does more for me than two oranges nestling in a bed of chest hair. It’s a fruit’s prerogative.
The origins of my aversion date back to the time when I began to realize that what I needed to get off my chest one day was something other than the fur I was not destined to grow in profusion. I was about twelve. Still without a costume on the morning of the annual school carnival, I let my older sister, who was as resourceful as she was bossy, talk me into wearing one of the skirts she had long discarded in favor of rather too tight-fitting jeans. Being dressed in my sister’s clothes was awkward for me, considering that I was fairly confused about my gender to begin with, certain only about the one to which I was drawn. More than a skirt was about to come out of the closet, and I was not equipped to deal with it.
Responding to my calculatedly nonchalant remark that the costume was some kind of last-minute ersatz, our smug, self-loving English teacher, Herr Julius, told the assembled class that, during carnival, folks tended to reveal what they secretly longed to be, which, apparently, went well beyond the common desire not to be humiliated. No wonder Herr Julius did not bother to don a mask other than the one with which he confronted us all the scholastic year round.
Matters were complicated further by my wayward anatomy. Let’s just say that it didn’t require oranges to make a fairly convincing girl out of me; I was equipped with fleshy protuberances that earned me the sobriquet “battle of the sexes.” I wondered whether I was destined to shroud myself in one pretense in order to drop another. That, in a pair of coconut shells, is why cross-dressers and any such La Cage faux dollies were never to become my bag. And I’ve got a lot of baggage.
What has that to do with The Hot Mikado, the show I was so reluctant to clap my eyes on? As it turns out, not very much. I had been mistaken about the gender of the performer playing Katisha, the character on the posters advertising the show (pictured).
Far from being some newfangled cabaret act, The Hot Mikado is seventy years old this year. Appropriating presumably WASPish entertainment for a younger and less exclusive audience, it was first performed in 1939 with an all-black, extravagantly decked out cast headed by the legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the title role. The currently touring Watermill production—which is soon to conclude in Girona, Spain—updates the carnivalesque spectacle in retro-1980s colors, with Manga and movie inspired costumes, as well as assorted references to Susan Boyle and British politics. The music is still jazz-infused Gilbert and Sullivan.
Set “somewhere in Japan” and produced at a time when Mr. Moto was forced to take an extended Vacation, the anachronistic Hot Mikado was all jitterbug without being bugged down by pre-war jitters. It is outlandish rather than freakish, amalgamated rather than discordant, qualities reassuring to anyone who has ever felt mixed up or unable to mix. A few bum notes aside, the production was hardly an occasion for any prolonged orbiting of orbs. The joyous spectacle of it kept even my mind’s eye from rolling, from running over the bones, funny or otherwise, that tend to tumble out of this Fibber McGeean closet of mine . . .
Greek war relief special (8 February 1941), featuring Frank Morgan, Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Groucho Marx singing songs from The Mikado
“Hollywood Mikado”, starring Fred Allen (11 May 1947)
Chicago Theater production of “The Mikado” (22 October 1949)
The Railroad Hour production of “The Mikado” (5 December 1949)