Music: Harry Warren
Lyrics: Al Dubin
Book: Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
Drury Lane Theatre, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
There are few more famous openings in theatre history, the curtain rises just a few inches just enough to reveal a battalion of tap shoes tapping away. A big orchestra strikes up Harry Warren’s famous tunes and it’s enough to lift the spirits of the dead.
As it progresses you reach the finale of a spectacular Busby Berkeley-like number thinking this must be the climax, but no, like buses, along come two more, one more razzle-dazzle than the next, where sequins blind you and mirrors stun you. It’s a show specifically designed to have wow factor.
The book is flimsy, barely sketching out, as the film did, the desperation of these Great Depression-era kids, nor do we get any real handle on ‘Pretty Lady’ the show-within-a-show. The tone is very old Hollywood, something that might jar with today’s young audiences less in thrall to old movies on TNT. But none of this matters because you are here for the transcendence and exhilaration of the musical numbers and it helps having an impeccably drilled cast of 50, on the largest stage in London, delivering them.
Like An American in Paris it’s origins are also in film, in this case a 1933 one featuring just five of Warren’s standards. This transformation of the piece into a technicolor MGM-like extravaganza has a dozen more added for heft. Douglas W. Schmidt and Roger Kirk’s designs are even brasher than before, using gleefully insane colour palettes for the chorus girls but the production is very much a facsimile of the much admired original, restaged here under the guidance of Mark Bramble (the original co-author) and Randy Skinner (original co-choreographer).
The story is a simple one: dictatorial impresario Julian Marsh (Tim Lister) is mounting his latest extravaganza and young chorine Peggy (Clare Halse), just off the bus from Allentown, is called upon to save the day when the grumpy Diva Dorothy Brock (Sheena Easton) breaks here ankle. “You’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back star” he implores.
‘80s pop sensation Easton might seem odd casting (she’s been in Vegas all these years, by the way) but her voice has the range to cope with torch songs, Lehar parodies and dance numbers and most importantly she has the poise and star quality to fill that stage, despite being a slip of a thing. There is a knowing wit to her and a glint in her eye as she glides through the numbers, rather welcome in the irony free zone here. The joke is she can’t dance and is cast because she is married to the ‘money’ in the show, a doddery Texan millionaire. She may lack the polish of a comedienne but this ain’t Coward.
Halse is an astonishingly talented tapper but struggles to make the underwritten Peggy more than cardboard. Lister manages the fine line of giving Marsh gravitas whilst having to deliver often corny wisecracks. The ensemble needless to say are sublime and the whole thing is testament to the old adage that ‘nothing succeeds like excess’.