Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman
Book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee in a new version
by David Thompson
Charing Cross Theatre, London WC2, until March 30, 2013
Winsome isn’t a word you hear much these days, but it perfectly describes this wonderful curiosity by Jerry Herman, composer of Hello Dolly and Mame. This was his 1969 follow up to those two massive hits, but it closed after only four months on Broadway and only now has made it to the West End.
Based on Jean Giraudoux’s play The Madwoman of Chaillot (memorably filmed with Katharine Hepburn), this rose-tinted fable tells the story of Countess Aurelia, the owner of the Café Francis, a historical bistro in 1940s Paris, which comes under threat from unscrupulous businessmen who believe they have discovered oil directly underneath. The three corporate suits will stop at nothing to push Aurelia aside, demolish her café and drill for oil. Yes, oil under Paris. Geology was never Herman’s strong point.
All of Herman’s trademarks are present and correct – a batty middle-aged female lead with a great intro number A Sensible Woman, a chirpy hymn to optimism in Each Tomorrow Morning, and a sentimental show stopper in waltz time I Don’t Want To Know (the only song which has had a life outside the show), plus a chance for some great character acting in the smaller parts. All the songs are suffused with Herman’s trademark sentimentality, yet redeemed by his great talent for penning catchy tunes.
His shows require larger than life female leads and here the producers have sensibly imported the great Broadway doyenne Betty Buckley. Flighty, ditzy and sharp as a pin at the same time, she is perfectly cast, perfectly dressed, and commands the stage. There are few female musical theater stars today who can match her skill in conveying a dramatic lyric, and here she turns And I Was Beautiful, for example, into a touching meditation on old age.
Paul Nicholas provides solid support as the unfortunate if accurately named Sewerman, but the piece really comes alive when Aurelia marshals a pair of her equally dotty friends to thwart the plan by the evil moguls. Annabel Leventon is a complete delight as Constance (who “hears voices”), and Rebecca Lock steals the show as the capricious Gabrielle. Trapped forever in maidenhood, she is invariably accompanied by her invisible pooch, Dickie, which she uses to persecute those who might get in her way. The show is at its best during these great flights of fantasy and weakest when trying, rather feebly, to be meaningful.
There is no denying the unevenness of the book, but director Gillian Lynne’s affection for the material shines through. Needless to say the legendary choreographer Lynne (still with gamine looks in her late eighties) brings some beautiful movement to the piece, but the dance numbers are hemmed in on this small stage. Rambert Dance star Ayman Safiah adds a real touch of class in the dancing role of the Mute and is one to keep an eye on.
The story goes that the original production drowned under the weight of its own lavishness (and changing tastes), but here the chamber production approach works a treat. Production values, for such a small commercial venue, are top class with Sarah Travis’ beautiful orchestrations, Matt Kinley’s luxurious set and Ann Hould-Ward’s striking costumes of particular note.
Its delicate whimsy won’t be to everyone’s taste, but for Herman completists, for fans of Betty Buckley, and for those fed up with jukebox musicals, this is a bit of light relief.
Jerry Herman does eco-drama. Who’da thunk?