Tag Archives: musical comedy

42nd Treat

42nd Street
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 30th October, 2012


Seventy years ago the film appeared as an antidote to the Great Depression. The Cinderella story of the chorus girl who becomes an overnight star is a cliché, to be sure, but the plot is not the point of this new touring production. As in the 1930s, we are invited to escape from our hardships and the economic decline, and spend a couple of hours looking at things through optimistic eyes. Every situation has a sunny side, or so they tell us.

This opulent, extravagant cartoon of a show is a real tonic. Director Mark Bramble handles the heightened world of musical comedy with exactly the right tone. We are never allowed to overlook the artifice of such a world but also the bubble of this world is never punctured: backdrops are painted flat – even the curtain is painted to look like a curtain! In this world, girls tap-dance their way along the street and it’s perfectly natural.

The songs are standards, all tuneful and with witty lyrics: We’re In The Money, Keep Young and Beautiful, Lullaby of Broadway…; the dialogue sparkles and the cast play their roles with larger-than-life gusto – Bruce Montague as rich Texan backer Abner Dillon is a case in point, drawling out his words, just the right side of parody. Dave Willetts is the irascible Broadway producer barking orders and terrorising everyone – but then, with Lullaby of Broadway, we get to hear that smooth singing voice that gives rise to shivers along the spine. James O’Connell’s Billy Lawlor croons “I’m young and healthy” – no argument from me! Graham Hoadly and Carol Ball are an energetic double act – the comic turns of the show-within-the-show – in fact, the entire company infuses the show with such verve, their enthusiasm is irresistible.

Jessica Punch is astounding as wannabe chorine from the sticks whose rise to Broadway fame is somehow inevitable. Fast-talking and even faster-tapping, her Peggy Sawyer is an oddball character, and a force of nature. But for me the highlights are whenever Marti Webb comes on. As past-her-sell-by diva Dorothy Brock, Webb is clearly enjoying herself. She pitches the characterisation just right and when she sings, that clear, steady voice reaches inside you and grabs at your emotions. I Only Have Eyes For You is worth the ticket price alone, but there is also humour within the character, just the right side of send-up.

The choreography – you might quail at the thought of two hours of tap-dancing – never falls short of impressive. Graeme Henderson keeps each number fresh and different, whether its small-scale, sitting at a restaurant table or full-blown, full company covered in sequins on an illuminated staircase. It’s a large company – which is always good to see in a touring production – and rightly so, to give the full Busby Berkeley effect. A mirror suspended over the stage reveals the kaleidoscopic patterns made by the dancers on the floor. They dance on giant coins, they dance as giant flowers – it’s all high camp and a delight from start to finish.

Go and meet those dancing feet. The tireless cast will recharge you as the dank nights of winter draw in.

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Fisher Queen

WONDERFUL TOWN
Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 22nd May, 2012

This lesser-known Leonard Bernstein musical from 1953 left me wondering why it isn’t staged more often. Teeming with life, funny characters and catchy melodies, it tells the story of Ruth and Eileen, sisters who leave their home town of Columbus, Ohio to seek their fortunes in New York City. They rent a basement flat in Greenwich Village and are immediately mistaken for a pair of hookers. Eventually, they sort out their employment issues (Ruth as a writer; Eileen as an actor) and their romantic entanglements.

What struck me was the tone of the piece. It is neither saccharine nor salacious. It strikes the perfect balance between sweet and saucy and there is not a trace of cynicism in the entire show. It seems to suggest that the American Dream is dead. New York is full of people whose ambitions and aspirations have been thwarted. This theme is encapsulated by the song What A Waste which tells of writers, artists, musicians, actors who have all found the streets of NYC are not paved with golden opportunities. But, being a musical comedy, it doesn’t leave matters standing like that. If you don’t give up on your hopes and aspirations, and keep plugging away, all will come good. After some confusions and false starts, the sisters achieve their goals and all ends happily.

As Ruth, Connie Fisher establishes herself beyond all doubt as a character actor and more than a rent-a-Maria. She gets the snappiest one-liners and demonstrates an aptitude for physical comedy. Her voice seems to be in a lower register and it suits her. Her scene with a bunch of Brazilian sailors obsessed with dancing the Conga was a definite highlight for me. I can easily imagine her as the next Fanny Brice.

She is matched by Lucy van Gasse as man-magnet Eileen. This blonde soprano charms men merely by existing. Suitors fall over themselves to be near her. Before long, the Irish – sorry, Oirish – contingent of the NYPD are fawning over her – the second act begins with a deliciously funny scene in the cop shop, just one of this show’s many moments that had the audience gasping in delight. Michael Xavier is a dashing Bob Baker with his rich voice and handsome face. Nic Greenshields is sweet as gentle giant Wreck, a footballer in training who has to provide his own cheerleading, and Sevan Stephen’s Bohemian landlord, Mr Appopolous, is a masterclass in comic playing.

Simon Higlett’s massive set is stylish and versatile, The vibrant score is melodious with a jazzy twist – you can detect a hint of West Side Story in the arrangement. These songs deserve to be standards. A Little Bit In Love is perfectly charming. Ohio is wistful, and beautifully harmonised by Fisher and van Gasse. Director Braham Murray keeps the pace swift and the surprises keep coming, but credit is due to the producers who had the good sense to revive this overlooked gem and bring it to a new audience.

I hope they now turn their attention to Funny Girl with Ms Fisher in the lead…