Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Book by David Thompson
The Union Theatre, Southwark, London SE1. Until November 24, 2012.
How come a musical by Kander and Ebb, which was nominated for eleven Tonys, has taken fifteen years to get here? No, it’s not a turkey, it’s a piece of real quality, but I guess if you fail there you don’t get much of a chance anywhere – it only ran two months on Broadway in 1997.
Those who know their Kander and Ebb will be familiar with some of the songs such as Second Chance and the great naughty vaudeville turn Everybody’s Girl, which have been covered by a number of artists, but the revelation is the show itself.
The piece revisits the territory of the great 1969 movie They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, and it shares with that film a bittersweet sadness at the plight of desperate young people in Depression-era America wooed into entering dance marathons, hoping that a win will be their ticket to fame or escape (think X-Factor). In the meantime they literally scrabble for coins thrown at them by the audience. If you want to get heavy, it’s a great metaphor for capitalism in the 1930s, when that was at its most raw.
On the other hand, you might just prefer dancin’ girls, and it works at that level too. Director Paul Taylor Mills has brought together a really talented cast, and Aimie Atkinson in particular shines as the sassy showgirl wannabee Shelby Stevens, who steals the show in Everybody’s Girl. They’ve cast Americans in a number of the parts and Jay Rincon has the right Tom Cruise-like allure, which is perfect for the part of the stunt pilot hero Bill Kelly. He represents an escape for our heroine Rita Racine (Sarah Galbraith), trapped as she is in a loveless marriage to Hamilton (Ian Knauer), the opportunistic emcee of the marathon who schemes to fix the competitions for their benefit.
Thompson’s book introduces a disparate range of great supporting characters which, while not fully fleshed out here, could certainly be developed in a movie version. Set in Atlantic City of 1933, it recalls TV’s Boardwalk Empire.
The challenge for the choreographer in this tiny space is great, and Richard Jones triumphs in re-staging Susan Stroman’s choreography, which embraces nightclub numbers, the dance marathons and great movement sequences, seamlessly integrated into the action. David Shields’ designs (a traverse stage with a silver laméd bandstage at one end) also fit perfectly into this, admittedly, down-at-heel-venue.
By the end, Rita departs with a new sense of hope having been usurped by another girl, the grasping soprano Precious McGuire (Lisa-Anne Wood), and with Hamilton’s warning in her ears that she won’t make it on her own. Galbraith, who has Broadway credits under her belt, gives Rita a great maturity and has a fine voice.
Like Kander & Ebb’s best work, Cabaret and Chicago, the piece combines grit and glitz, which is their singular skill. While the London Fringe displays its mettle by staging a piece like this to so high a standard with so little money, it cries out for a bigger production and in a West End littered with lazy jukebox shows, it’s a shame this hasn’t been given a “Second Chance” itself.