New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 13th August, 2015
Stage Experience is an intensive two-week programme in which youngsters from across the region rehearse a full-scale production and have it fit for public consumption in a proper theatre. Hot on the heels of last year’s rip-roaring success, Footloose, comes this toe-tapping classic musical, where the score (by Harry Warren and Al Dubin) is better known with standard following standard. Also, the book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble is a lot of fun, bubbling with witty one-liners and amusing incidents. But does the young cast, like leading lady Peggy Sawyer herself, rise to the challenge of learning a show in no time at all and, in the process, make a star of herself?
From the opening, when the curtain rises to reveal a dense forest of legs all moving in step, and the rat-a-tat of tap shoes beats a tattoo, you know you are in for an exhilarating experience. There is something wonderful about tap-dancing but to see and hear it en masse is something else. And this is just the opening number!
Out of the hundred and ten performers – all of whom act with discipline and focus – individuals emerge. Mollie-Anna Riley is appropriately superior as the diva Dorothy Brock. Katie Gladwin impresses as the show’s ‘writer’ Maggie, with a mature performance that belies her young years and lack of previous experience. Matt Pidgeon is hypnotically good as tenor and head hoofer Billy Lawlor – this boy can dance and has a singing voice in keeping with the period of the piece. There is strong support from Kieran Palmer as Dorothy’s love interest, Pat Denning, Nicholas Jones as choreographer Andy Lee, and Chris Johnstone as Bert.
As the chorus girl getting her big break, Caprice Lane shines – despite a ropey wig – to bring out Peggy Sawyer’s talent, drive and clumsiness. We know, because of plot reasons, she’s going to succeed, but we still root for her just the same. Lane’s tap-dancing is second-to-none and she imbues the character with charm and humour.
The incomparable Mark Shaun Walsh plays Julian Marsh, the authoritarian director of the show-within-the-show. The accent is spot on – we expect nothing less – but Walsh portrays the tension of the character through his posture and delivery. We have to wait until well into the second act to be treated to his West End-quality singing voice, for the iconic Lullaby of Broadway. He also closes the show with a solo rendition of the title song and it gives you chills. This young man ought to have a stellar career ahead of him.
The show is a lot of fun – amusing material superbly presented. The stage can seem a little crowded at times, with the huge chorus crammed onto the apron, but the sea of bodies on the full stage is a spectacle in itself. Apart from the plethora of dodgy blonde wigs and a few missed microphone cues, everything is of such high quality, you’d think they’d been working on it since the curtain came down on their previous production.
Director and choreographer Pollyann Tanner works her magic once more and brings out the best in her enthusiastic and talented crowd. I’m already looking forward to next year’s offering.