Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, based on RKO’s motion picture.
At the Aldwych Theatre, London.
Booking until January 2013.
For the first time the estate of Irving Berlin has allowed this great Astaire and Rogers musical to be staged and in Matthew White’s lavish production the West End receives a sparkling version, graced by two likeable stars Summer Strallen and Strictly Come Dancing winner Tom Chambers.
The 1935 film on which it was based was one of nine classics that Astaire and Rogers completed for RKO between 1933 and 1939. They’ve rightly entered cinema history and if this show introduces them to a new audience then it has done its work. Packed with imperishable Berlin songs such as Putting on the Ritz, No Strings, Isn’t This a Lovely Day and Cheek to Cheek, you leave humming, and tomorrow morning in the shower you will still be humming. The original, perfect at 95 minutes, has been padded out with no less than ten additional songs by Berlin, including Let’s Face the Music and Dance. Sometimes this works, as when the gazelle-like Strallen gets a chance to shine in solo numbers such as the sultry Wild About You, but often they’re superfluous.
The Strallen sisters truly are a wonder of the West End. Summer’s sister Scarlett is currently wowing them in Singin’ In the Rain and both are the famous “triple threat”: they can sing, act and dance divinely. If only there were a similar family producing a line of male leads of such quality, the future of musical theatre would be assured.
The challenge for Tom Chambers here was immense; not only must he follow in the footsteps of Fred Astaire, but he’s also up against a more experienced troupe of musical theatre performers. With a crooked grin and a boyish bonhomie he inhabits the part well, but up against a Strallen, his lack of technique, particularly in the singing, does show.
The supporting cast are all pitch perfect with Ricardo Afonso hilarious as the explosive Italian dress maker Beddini and Stephen Boswell, a caustic joy as the butler Bates. Vivien Parry is a barbed delight as the friend of the heroine, Madge, who gets all the best lines. Martin Ball has to follow in the great footsteps of Edward Everett Horton who played Horace – Horton was the master of the double take in so many glorious 1930s comedies. Ball here gives the part a British spin and could be right out of P G Woodhouse.
As for the plot, it doesn’t really matter that it is paper-thin, the emotion is in the dancing and in those moments of transcendence that only musicals can provide.
A Depression-era escapist fantasy like this, of course, requires conspicuous consumption and Hildegard Bechtler’s glorious art deco sets truly deliver this. At times their scale does tend to overwhelm the space given to the dancers but it’s a difficult compromise. Here choreographer Bill Deamer probably lost out and his perfectly drilled ensemble look hemmed in during key moments when they need to fly. The ensemble are top class, as are the band, aided by Chris Walker’s wonderful arrangements.
The Cheek to Cheek number with Ginger in that amazing feathered gown is of course the iconic image from the film and while Jon Morrell’s costumes are generally exquisite he seems to have lost his nerve on that one. He delivers a poor shadow of the original, looking more like a negligee, and one wonders if perhaps he ran out of marabou feathers! It’s a small flaw however in an otherwise haute couture production.