Book by Blake Edwards, Music by Henry Mancini, Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse
Southwark Playhouse, London SE1, until December 15 2012
SE1 is the place for musicals in London these days. Both the Menier Chocolate Factory and the Union Theatre have distinguished track records with the genre, but Southwark Playhouse, located in a railway arch under London Bridge station, probably trumps them both, having had a great run recently with Parade, Floyd Collins and Mack and Mabel.
Here a traverse stage transforms this dingy railway arch into a delightfully decadent nightclub with some audience seated at lamp lit club tables on the sides. Director, Thom Southerland, who is one to watch, does wonders with unpromising material and delivers a show of great pizzazz, aided by a strong cast.
Anna Francolini triumphs in the lead role bringing both vulnerability and chutzpah in equal measure. She plays Victoria Grant, a rather prim English soprano in 1930s Paris, who ends up impersonating a female impersonator and becoming the toast of the town in the process. Penniless, she’s ended up in this bind after fleeing a lecherous landlord, wanting payment in kind for the rent, and striking up with a loveable, camp, rogue Toddy (Richard Dempsey). Seeing her change out of wet clothes and donning a man’s suit left behind by his lover he realises the potential to make money out of her androgynous allure.
Audiences will of course fondly remember the original hit movie from 1982 which gave Julie Andrews’ career a much needed shot in the arm and had other glorious Oscar nominated turns from Robert Preston and Lesley Anne Warren. Blake Edwards later reworked the material for his wife for Broadway in 1995 and it was to flesh out that stage version that Frank Wildhorn was engaged to add some new songs, Henry Mancini having died by then.
Those songs are for the most part un-distinguished but the book is solid with a well woven sub plot featuring her burgeoning romance with a gangster from Chicago who is horrified at his growing attraction to ‘Victor’. The club numbers fizz and as well as the famous ‘Le Jazz Hot’, the Sun King parody “Louis Says” is milked for all its comic potential. Why they cut ’The Shady Lady from Seville’ number from the movie is a mystery. Joseph Atkins orchestrations here though are perfectly attuned to this nightclub milieu.
This traverse staging also gives the dancing even more momentum and the dancers here are a standout. Lee Proud’s witty and razor-sharp choreography is a joy. The only weak point is the casting of a far too young Dempsey as Toddy. I can’t believe they couldn’t find an ageing theatrical queen for this part in all of London.
Matthew Cutts, is perfectly dashing and in great voice as the gangster King Marchand and Kate Nelson has a ball as his vulgar “broad” Norma, a gem of a part. Michael Cotton, as King’s tough bodyguard Squash, is very touching in his scenes where he’s struggling with his own sexual identity. The number ‘Living in the Shadows’, which ends the piece, is of course a trifle dishonest (they’re not hiding their sexuality they’re playing a game to get a job) and in the end the boy gets the girl and all is well with the world. Like La Cage Aux Folles, from the same era, it plays with being daring but finally knows its place.
Along the way though it is a supremely polished piece of entertainment and testament to what great work being done with tiny budget on the London Fringe.