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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Beautiful and Damned
Lyric Theatre, Spring-Summer 2004

This new musical isn't especially bad. It's just totally unnecessary. You might well spend a couple of painless hours in its company, but it has very little to offer, either musically or dramatically, its few virtues are totally derivative and second-rate, and almost anything else you could think of to do with your evening is likely to be more rewarding.

The tale of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and his demon-driven wife has become an American myth, partly because the destruction of the golden couple lends itself to so many romantic interpretations. Were they the embodiment of a golden age, brought down by the cruel march of time, or just a couple of drunks who sank separately into sterile alcoholism and psychosis? Was he the Great American Novelist lumbered with a crazy wife or a rather good novelist who drank away his modest talent? Was she a potential artist stifled by the sexism of her time and her insecure husband or just a wannabe whose only talents were throwing drunken orgies and being neurotically demanding?

Now, no one expects depth psychology from a musical comedy, but it would have been nice if Beautiful and Damned had chosen one or another of these interpretations in telling us the Scott-and-Zelda story. Instead, book writer Kit Hesketh Harvey answers all those questions - including the mutually contradictory ones - with a resounding Yes, as the show doesn't seem able to remember from minute to minute what it thinks about the characters.

So, constant self-contradictions aside, what we get is a rapid and unenlightening double biography. Scott and Zelda meet and marry, he starts writing best-selling novels, they party their way through the 1920s, he has trouble writing, she toys with a string of would-be artistic careers, he's in and out of alcoholic stupors, she's in and out of loony bins.

Helen Anker brings some sexy energy to Zelda, sings prettily and dances up a storm in some of the production numbers of the first half, suggesting she might be do nicely in a show like Thoroughly Modern Millie. But she's stuck with a characterisation that has been written to a timeclock, as every five minutes she must visibly click noticeably closer to psychosis, and the mechanical predictability of the thing defeats her.

Michael Praed is given even less to work with as Scott. I'm not sure how one conveys that a character is a Real Writer on stage, but you won't for a minute believe that this nice-looking lad has anything artistic in him, or that its loss causes him much real distress. He does sing a ballad nicely, though you begin to notice that he gets quickly hustled offstage whenever a dance number begins.

Little of this would really matter - while Rodgers and Hammerstein taught us sixty years ago that the musical can carry a weight of drama and characterisation, it isn't obligatory - if you came out humming some memorable songs. But the barely serviceable songs by Les Reed and Roger Cook are the sort you forget even while you're hearing them. A few hours later, with the programme in front of me, I can't hum any one of them.

Director/choreographer Craig Revel Horwood gives us a couple of sprightly dance numbers, but even they play like out-takes from other shows, like Anything Goes or Thoroughly Modern Millie.

If Scott and Zelda hadn't existed, Tennessee Williams would have had to invent them (He actually did, in one of his last plays). Their rise and fall does have something deeply mythic about it, and someday a  play - perhaps even a musical -  will capture some part of it. But Beautiful and Damned isn't that play, and it doesn't have much else to offer.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Beautiful and Damned - Lyric 2004