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 The Theatreguide.London Reviews


For the Archive, we have filed our reviews of several musicals that opened in 2003 together. This makes for a fairly long page, but scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.

Anything Goes - Bea Arthur - The Bombitty of Errors - Calamity Jane - Cliff - Pacific Overtures - Play Without Words - Ragtime - Tell Me On A Sunday - Thoroughly Modern Millie - Zipp

 

Anything Goes Olivier Theatre Winter-Spring 2003; Drury Lane Theatre Autumn 2003 - Summer 2004

The National Theatre's past forays into Broadway musicals have fallen into an interesting pattern. When they tackle acknowledged classics of the genre, they can be absolutely brilliant - think of their Guys and Dolls, Carousel and My Fair Lady - but when they dip into the second tier - Lady in the Dark, A Little Night Music - the results can be deadly.

So how would they do with Cole Porter's Anything Goes, one of the better musicals of the 1930s, but no Oklahoma? The answer, as it turns out, is somewhere in between. Trevor Nunn's production has a lot of things lacking about it, and takes a long time to warm up, but it eventually finds its feet and offers a happy - if not quite wonderful - experience.

Originally written as a vehicle for Ethel Merman, the show was completely rewritten by a couple of other guys for a 1987 revival, with a few extra Porter songs shoehorned in, and it is that version the NT is doing. It's set on an ocean liner, with the plot built around a boy stowing away to stop the girl he loves from marrying someone else, and in the process being mistaken for a gangster and hailed as a celebrity.

The real star roles, though, are a night club singer and a gangster who help get the lovers together, while the score includes such first-level Porter gems as I Get a Kick Out Of You, You're the Top, Friendship and the title song. And the first shortfall you notice in this production is the lack of star power. In the Merman role Sally Ann Triplett has some vulgar energy, but she never really seizes the stage, and for the first half seems to be merely slavishly following direction, down to the smallest mechanical gesture. Martin Marquez proves himself a drily understated comedian as the gangster, stealing scenes with effortless ease, but the nicest thing to say about John Barrowman as the boy is that he is considerably less wooden than romantic leads tend to be.

John Gunter's shipboard set is a clumsy one, making the enormous Olivier stage seem cramped, and at least in the first act Stephen Mear's choreography repeatedly falls short. There are a couple of Fred-and-Ginger dances for the lovers that peter out just when they should be starting, while the first act finale, to the title song, almost wastes the virtually guaranteed excitement of a stage full of tap dancers. The number eventually comes alive, but you can't help thinking that Gower Champion would have had it at full steam from the start and built from there.

Things get very, very much better in Act II, though, as a string of one show-stopper after another energises both cast and audience. With Blow Gabriel Blow Sally Ann Triplett finally shows us what she's got as a belter and mover, and Mear's choreography breaks loose to real excitement, including a witty tip of the hat to Bob Fosse in the middle of the number. Then Simon Day, as the girlšs stuffy British fiance, cuts loose with Triplett in the hilarious Gypsy In Me, followed almost immediately by Annette McLaughlin, as the gangster's moll, dancing up a storm with some sailors to Buddy Beware.

In short, the show eventually reaches the level of high energy and great fun it should have had from the start, and on that basis it can be recommended - as long as you have the patience to sit through the first half while it's warming up.

Gerald Berkowitz

November 2003: The National Theatre's high-energy production transfers to the West End more-or-less intact, and looks likely to settle in and entertain audiences for a while.

This is almost the archetype of the kind of big, brassy Broadway musical they don't make any more, and if I have some reservations about its not being quite big and brassy enough, I am clearly in a minority. As my original review above shows, I felt and still feel that it takes a little too long for star Sally Ann Triplett to find her feet and for the production to find just how loud and (in the best sense of the word ) vulgar it wants to be.

I can see now that this is clearly a directorial decision, Trevor Nunn opting to guide us into the play's world slowly, and willing to pay the price of having to catch up later. So, for example, when Triplett and John Barrowman as the romantic lead mug their way through You're The Top early in the first act, the effect is cute and totally entertaining. The fact that Triplett's character isn't meant to be cute may not matter, except that it takes the actress a couple more numbers to get us up to the larger-than-life level she plays the rest of the show in.

Not even I am old enough to have seen Ethel Merman in the original production, but I have heard recordings, and while Triplett eventually gets close to that level of brassiness, I can't help wishing she hit us with it from the start. (On the simplest level, she is in constant danger of being drowned out by the orchestra, instead of blasting her way through as Merman would have without a microphone.)

Elsewhere, I'm more impressed by Barrowman than I was last year, appreciating how he fills out the somewhat thankless role of the romantic lead, and I sorely miss the late Denis Quilley in the comic supporting role of the tipsy millionaire, his replacement all but invisible in his scenes. John Gunter's set seems less awkward on the enormous Drury Lane stage, Martin Marquez and Simon Day continue to steal their scenes with fine comic performances, and when everyone around me is having a wonderful time, who am I to complain that it might have been even better?

Gerald Berkowitz

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Bea Arthur at the Savoy Savoy Theatre, Autumn 2003

Fans of Bea Arthur will find her solo show a delight. Those who are not, or who don't know her, will wonder why this older woman of seemingly limited talent is taking up their evening.

Bea Arthur appeared in one of the first-ever Off-Broadway hits, The Threepenny Opera, in 1954, and subsequently played key supporting roles on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof and in Mame. But she is best known for two sitcoms, Maude and The Golden Girls, which kept her on American TV for almost two decades.

Arthur has been doing her current show for a couple of years now, a solo performance of song and anecdote co-created with her pianist, Billy Goldenberg, who affects a comically dour persona onstage. But, while she undoubtedly has charm and stage presence, and can continue to tour the show as long as her fans want her to, she is not likely to win over many new followers in the process.

The passage of time and several visits to the cosmetic surgeon have left the admitted octogenarian with a mask that from certain angles most resembles John Ireland in Chinese makeup. In her heyday Arthur was a belter in the Broadway tradition, but time has seriously ravaged her voice. While she can still handle quieter songs, every time she tries to hold or push a note, her voice cracks painfully, going places they don't have notes for.

Oddly, Arthur sings none of her owns songs from the shows she was in, choosing instead songs sung by others in Mame and Threepenny Opera - her firmly dramatic take on the Pirate Jenny song from the latter show is one of the evening's highlights - along with a couple of songs from Gypsy, reminding us that several decades back she might have made a great Madame Rose.

You might be puzzled why she chooses two quiet, out-of-character-for-her songs from the 1978 Broadway flop Ballroom (which she repeatedly misidentifies), until a check of the program reminds you that Goldenberg wrote the music.

Meanwhile, the spoken parts of her programme, though they include humourous anecdotes of Mae West, Tony Curtis, Jerome Robbins and others, are delivered in such a mechanical way that every supposed pause, ad lib or doubletake has the frozen quality of having been long ago locked into place and done by rote.

The determined fan might be able to overlook some of these limitations, but I fear that others will find the evening sometimes painfully heavy going.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

The Bomb-itty of Errors New Ambassadors Theatre, Spring 2003

Isn't it always like that? You wait your entire life for a rap version of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors (the one about the two sets of twins constantly mistaken for each other), and then two come along in the same week. You'll find our review of Da Boyz in the Fringe section. 

This fast-moving high-energy romp, a big hit at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer, is just as much fun now that it's finally come to London, and you miss it at your peril. Originally created by five theatre grad students in New York a few years ago, it is currently being performed by four guys who want it made clear that they are actors playing rappers, along with an onstage DJ. They compound the complexities of Shakespeare's farcical plot by playing all the roles themselves, with some incredibly quick backstage changes, so that you may have to check your programme to verify that there are only four of them.

The translation from Elizabethan (I) to  Elizabethan (II) idiom is remarkably smooth and clever. Shakespeare actually wrote this early play in a lot of highly rhythmic rhymed couplets, and the scholars among us will recognize many of them being recited to a hip-hop beat. Meanwhile, the updates are fully in the spirit of the original, so that rhymes like villain/chillin' and arrested/you-guessed-it flow just as smoothly and wittily as the others.

Indeed, this whole show, with its infectious high spirits and never-take-itself-too-seriously attitude, captures the Shakespearean farce essence more fully and authentically than some moribund productions by a company I could name, whose initials are RSC.

For example, for no particular reason except to compound the silliness, Shakespeare threw a mad doctor into the mix, and it makes just as much sense for him to be a Rastifarian herbalist as anything else, just as it's a good New York joke for the jeweller to be a Hasidic Jew and the constable to be a cop who's been watching too many TV cop shows.

Interpolated jokes abound, with backup singers likely to appear and disappear without notice, an interminable shaggy dog story that actually pays off with a great punchline, and a messenger who proves that white boys can't rap. If you look sharp, you'll even see Shakespeare dash across the stage in one of the chase sequences.

Charles Anthony Burks, Joe Hernandez-Kolski, Chris Edwards and Ranney work together so beautifully that they won an ensemble acting award in Edinburgh. But it is Edwards, tripling as the local Dromio, the macho cop and especially the airheaded and relentlessly perky Luciana, who is the audience favourite. His is as happy a comic performance as you are likely to see in London this year.

Do not let any doubts you may have as to whether you're young enough or hip enough or rap fan enough keep you from this total hoot of a show. It is non-stop fun, exactly the way Shakespeare wanted The Comedy of Errors to be, and everything the modernisers have done to it works. Any fuddy-duddy who doesn't see that is to be pitied.

Gerald Berkowitz

Here's what we said about it in Edinburgh, August 2002:

It sounds like a really bad idea - a rap version of Shakespeare. But in fact this visitor from Off-Broadway is witty, clever, entertaining and remarkably true to the spirit of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors (the one about two sets of identical twins who were separated as children and are now mistaken for each other). Four rappers and a DJ play all the roles, with some remarkable quick changes and hilarious characterisations, particularly the dumb blonde who quickly becomes the audience's favourite. Deviser-director Andy Goldberg follows Shakespeare's plot quite closely, sometimes line-for-line, while the translation into contemporary vernacular and rap rhythms (for those who care, essentially anapestic tetrameter in rhymed couplets - ain't I erudite?) is witty and sufficiently varied in rap styles to stay fresh throughout. There's plenty of visual comedy and some very tight ensemble playing, making this a Fringe high point.

 

Calamity Jane Shaftesbury Theatre Spring 2003

Calamity Jane is a perky little puppy of a show that wants nothing more than to bounce around, chase its tail and let you love it. It is so good-spirited that criticising it (and I suppose I'll have to before I'm done) is as pointless and curmudgeonly as refusing to pet that puppy because it's not purebred enough.

Based on a forgettable 1953 Doris Day movie, the show tells of innocent confusions and romance in the Wild West, centering on a romantic quadrangle. Tomboy Jane is constantly feuding with Wild Bill Hickok but soft on Calvary Lieutenant Danny, while both men have fallen for Katie, the new saloon singer in town. I won't spoil the ending or surprise you when I report that Jane eventually puts on a dress and she and Bill get together, leaving the other couple to join the double wedding.

The movie had only a half-dozen songs by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, so the show has added a few more out of their catalogue. While only the Oscar-winning Secret Love is really of much merit, Windy City (a blatant rip-off of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Kansas City) has been turned into a rousing dance number, and the others are pleasant enough.

The big attraction and dynamic engine of the show is star Toyah Willcox. The pop singer, actress and occasional Teletubbies voice is onstage almost continuously, drawing on reserves of perkiness that could light up a medium-sized city. She sings while driving a stagecoach, she sings while lying on the floor, she sings while cracking a whip, she sings while hanging from the rafters, and if she ever actually stops smiling, I missed the moment. While so much sparkling could become annoying in a less personable and good-natured a performer, you can't help but give in and just enjoy the show with her.

Michael Cormick and Garry Kilby are appropriately handsome and manly as the love interests, though Kellie Ryan seems to have been cast as Katie with an eye toward making sure she never threatened the star, either in appearance or singing.

Director Ed Curtis keeps everything bouncing along, and choreographer Craig Revel Horwood borrows wisely, openly quoting both Michael Kidd and Bob Fosse in his high-energy dance numbers.

It isn't Hamlet. It isn't My Fair Lady or even Mamma Mia, but it doesn't pretend to be. It wants to be a nice, simple, fun-for-the-whole-family show, and it succeeds engagingly.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Cliff - The Musical Prince of Wales Theatre 2003

First thing to know . . . Calling this a musical is stretching it a bit. Cliff is more a revue, a hodgepodge of some of the 124 Top 40 hits racked up over a mind-boggling six decades by Britain's very own Peter Pan of pop, Cliff Richard.

Second . . . Cliff is not really about Cliff. It's more about its creator, Britain's very own Peter Pan of radio broadcasting, DJ Mike Read, who happens to be a close mate and tennis partner of Cliff's and who, having a similar hair-do, handily happens to take the show's star role.

Third . . . If you are unaware of the momentous part Sir Cliff has played in the development of the modern face of Britain, then a brief pundit's view may be of use here in assessing the show's visit-worthiness. Widely touted as these islands' answer to Elvis (every nation probably had one), the mellow-voiced singer leapt into the charts in 1958 and has rarely been out of them since. Though he notoriously turned to Christianity while the drug-addled Beatles were turning on the rest of the nation, and most radio stations now refuse to air his saccarine tunes, none of this stopped him from gaining the prized Millennium No 1 slot in 1999 with a saccarine version of the Lord's Prayer played to Auld Lang Syne (which, sinfully, doesn't even scan).

So what do you get for your money? A string of hits linked by a bumbling Read pretending to be an 80-year-old Cliff in the future looking back on his life, pretending to be funny and pretending to sing. He's joined by three other Cliffs of various ages, none of whom resemble His Cliffness let alone each other (and the two younger singers appear to only do Elvis impressions). No, that's a little harsh: leading tribute artist Jimmy Jemain does a more than passable Cliff visually and, more crucially, sings most of his repertoire admirably.

Still, the entire shebang reeks of sheer laziness, secure in the knowledge that the fans will pay regardless and there is no more than a nod towards the basic standards of stagecraft the rest of us would expect. The characters are cardboard-thin and the songs aren't even played in order, thus robbing the chance of even a half-decent nostalgia-fest. So there really is little here designed to attract other theatregoers.

Cliff Richard has made a career out of confounding the critics - he memorably defied popular taste in the nineties with Heathcliff, a West End musical starring himself that was roundly slated yet sold out thanks to his devoted and huge fan base (a sort of Kiss Army with family values). Now it's being done on his behalf and so will prove to be as winning a formula without him.

Nick Awde

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Pacific Overtures Donmar Warehouse Summer 2003

Stephen Sondheim's 1976 genre-stretching musical poses real challenges for any revival, and although Gary Griffin's production stumbles occasionally, it does capture much of the work's excitement.

The show comes from Sondheim's near-operatic period, along with Sweeney Todd, and attempts nothing less than the epic story of Japan's 19th century opening to the West, as seen through Japanese eyes and presented in adaptations of Japanese theatrical and musical modes.

Along with book writers John Weidman and Hugh Wheeler, and original producer-director Harold Prince, Sondheim was pushing the Broadway musical to its very limits, and I can remember, on seeing the first production, how very exciting the first half-hour or so was, as we felt something new being done to an entertainment form that had fallen into the doldrums.

Unfortunately the excitement of that first production waned as the show went on and didn't quite succeed. Like almost all of Sondheim's shows, it had second act problems, and one left with the sense of seeing something almost happen, a promise that would have to wait for Sweeney Todd to be fulfilled.

Still, a not-quite-successful work of artistic ambition can be more satisfying than a show that aims for far less and easily achieves it. And though the current production solves some of the problems of the show while finding new ones, it is something any lover of musicals will want to see.

Griffin's biggest improvement lies in using his limits of budget and stage size wisely, turning the somewhat over-produced Broadway version into a pocket opera played out in the round with a cast of ten and an orchestra of four. Much of the show's charm, both musical and dramatic, lies in its delicate touches, which come across better in the Donmar's small space than they could in a large theatre.

Perhaps his biggest error is in not attempting, even within his budgetary boundaries, the respectful adaptation of Japanese performance styles that Hal Prince used. Instead, we get portrayals that are a little too panto-Japanese, with funny voices, elongated syllables and silly walks.

Aside from subverting the musical's attempt to make us see through Japanese eyes, this directorial decision interferes with some of the show's artistic vocabulary. To take one example, Commodore Perry, captain of the first American voyage to Japan, is seen by the play as a long-haired monster, the lion-god of Japanese dances. In the context of other Japanese styles treated respectfully, this was a powerful image of Japanese perception of the new, but in this revival it stands unexplained and ineffective.

Like all of Sondheim's songs (except for that clown-sending one), those in this show resist being taken out of their dramatic context. Still, the score does include Someone In A Tree, one of Sondheim's own favourites; the haunting Pretty Lady; and the only-he-could-have-written-all-those-clever-rhymes Chrysanthemum Tea.

With almost everyone in the cast playing at least a half-dozen roles each, Joseph Anthony Foronda is a strong presence as the narrator, while Kevin Gudahl holds our sympathy as the little man charged with dealing with the invaders.

If my experience in 1976 was of an exciting start fading away, this revival has the opposite effect, with a slow start gradually being energised by the inherent power of the music and the artistic ambition of the show.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Play Without Words Lyttelton Theatre Winter 2003-2004

Matthew Bourne's dance-drama, first seen briefly at the National last year, returns for an extended run, and it is to be seen.

Inspired by Robin Maugham's novel The Servant, and particularly by the 1963 Losey-Pinter film of it, Bourne tells the story of a sinister valet who exploits his employer's weakness to make him so dependent that their positions are effectively reversed.

Bourne does it all in dance, with the added device of dividing all the main characters - master, servant, classy girlfriend, seductive housemaid, blokeish friend - among three dancers each, so that scenes are duplicated and mirrored in telling ways.

That's not as confusing or precious as it may sound. Sometimes the three sets of characters mirror each other, but more often they play subtle variations on a scene, deepening its texture.

Three pairs of characters might play out very different scenes of eroticism or menace at the same time, with the overall effect being intensified by the variations. Early in the evening, for example, one valet dresses his totally passive master while another undresses his, comically but also chillingly conveying the beginnings of a fatal dependency.

And the choreography is good - always exciting, beautiful or evocative to watch, always surprising us with a movement or pattern that is either a delight in itself or a telling dramatic effect.

Bourne's vocabulary is drawn from theatre and jazz dance, and set to a blues-flavoured score by Terry Davies. While the moods and contexts are very different, the predecessors it is most likely to remind you of are Jerome Robbins' dances for West Side Story.

With more than a dozen dancers in the key roles, all of them taking turns holding our attention, I can't single out any for special praise. But I must take note that they are all excellent dance actors, using their faces and movements to create character and convey thought and emotion in ways many dancers can't.

I can well believe that this work will someday take its place in the regular repertory of classical dance companies around the world. Meanwhile, anyone who loves dance or drama will want to see it now.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Ragtime Piccadilly Theatre Spring 2003

The best American musical of the 1990s has finally reached London, after being tied up in litigation for years. And if the current production is marginally less than perfect, it is still cause for rejoicing.

E. L. Doctorow's 1975 novel transported a German tale to the America of 100 years ago, turning Hans Kolhaus into Coalhouse Walker, a black man whose reaction to a racial insult escalates into violent revolution. He set Coalhouse's story against the experiences of a rich white family and a Latvian immigrant in order to capture a cross-section of the American experience, and sprinkled his novel with actual historical figures, from anarchist Emma Goodman to celebrity-of-the-month Evelyn Nesbit.

The novel is not a total success, as the attempt to intertwine these various strands gets overly complicated and unlikely, and as Coalhouse's story, which comes to dominate the book, is shoehorned rather uncomfortably into the American milieu. But in adapting it for the musical, playwright Terrence McNally has skilfully simplified and clarified, making for one of the strongest and most involving musical books of recent years.

McNally's major contributions are three: He finds a theatrically effective way of bringing Doctorow's narrative voice to the stage, by borrowing the choric narration device from David Edgar's Royal Shakespeare Company Nicholas Nickleby. He builds up the rich wife's gradual awareness of her strength and independence, merely suggested in the novel, into a strong subplot to balance out the Coalhouse story. And he moves the historical figures clearly into the realm of symbols - Goldman the voice of social change, Houdini the archetypal immigrant searching for freedom, and the like.

The result is a rich, evocative, frequently moving and always entertaining capturing of (in one lyric's words) a century spinning, an era beginning - and always with strong human stories for us to relate to.

And the musical element of the show is just as skilled and powerful. The songs - music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens - mainly build on a ragtime beat, and demonstrate how very rich and supple that idiom is, transmuting from joyous march to romantic waltz to cry of yearning love.

A couple of basic melodies underlie several of the songs, barely recognizable at different tempos or orchestrations, but providing a unifying tone or ironic contrast. Listen, for example, to how the witty opening number reappears as an aching love song, or to how Two Men Meeting, first heard as a celebration of the American Dream early in Act One, threatens to be its death knell late in Act Two.

As to performances, the evening belongs solidly to Kevyn Morrow as Coalhouse and Maria Friedman as the rich wife. Rich of voice, powerful in appearance, dignified in stature, Morrow makes us believe in Coalhouse's ability both to love and to hate, while Friedman reminds us of how superb a singing actress she is as she takes us musically through Mother's reluctant emotional journey to the awareness of her own strength.

Graham Bickley is warm and moving as the immigrant Tateh who, against all the odds, actually achieves wealth and happiness in America. Susie McKenna is powerful as Emma Goldman, with her two big numbers providing some of the evening's most moving moments, while Rebecca Thornhill captures the contrasting American impulse toward trivial hedonism as Evelyn Nesbit.

The major difference from the Broadway production is director Stafford Arima's decision to play it all on a bare stage, with little more than a few chairs as props. This doesn't significantly harm things, though for a show in which certain objects - a piano, a car, a velvet swing - play important roles, it wouldn't have hurt to let us see them, while the very important contrasts between rich and poor America are flattened out by the lack of visual cues.

Generically, Ragtime belongs to the neo-opera branch of musical theatre exemplified by Phantom and Les Mis. But while - dare I say it? - those others occasionally stray into pretentiousness, Ragtime remains solidly within the Broadway idiom, providing as satisfying an evening as any musical-lover could dream of.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Tell Me On A Sunday Gielgud Theatre 2003

This revival-rewrite of an early Andrew Lloyd Webber piece is strictly a vehicle for its star, Denise Van Outen, who makes the most of its opportunities. Whether that's enough to warrant your spending 50 pence a minute is another question.

It's a solo song cycle tracing the heroine's repetitively doomed love life. Escaping from a failed affair in London, she runs to New York, where she falls in love and is dumped three more times, remaining as ready to try again at the end as she was at the beginning, and living or reporting on all this in song.

Originally a 45-minute album and TV show, it ran on stage as part of a double bill two decades ago. Now, with five new songs - lyrics throughout by Don Black, with unspecified 'additional material' (perhaps the updated jokes in the old songs) by Jackie Clune - it still barely stretches to 75 minutes, including overture and curtain calls, or almost exactly two minutes per pound for those in the stalls.

Lloyd Webber's score has one first-rate theatre song, 'Unexpected Song,' and two quite good ones, 'Take That Look Off Your Face' and the title number. The rest is mainly filler, in some cases barely able to support the lyrics. You'll hear occasional echoes of Superstar and Evita, and may have time during the several reprises to wonder if some of the melodies were out-takes from those shows.

But Denise Van Outen almost makes this otherwise unnecessary revival worth it. The former daytime TV presenter -- Americans, imagine a sexier and less assertively wholesome Cathy Lee -- redefined herself as a stage star with a successful run in the musical Chicago.

There is no doubt that she holds the stage with real star quality, and she acts the songs far better than anyone else I've ever seen in the role. Her voice is more than adequate, though some who are used to more melodic and less dramatic interpretations of the songs may find them a little more rough-edged than they remember. This is not a bad thing, though, as she nicely reinterprets standards that have been homogenised by twenty years as elevator music.

There's one other small point. Digging through my old files I find that even two decades ago I was bothered by the fact that this character seems to have no job, no friends, no life, no way of defining herself except in terms of men. In a way it is a credit to Van Outen's energy and passion that you find it even harder to accept such passivity now. Somewhere around the character's third or fourth heartbreak you may find yourself wanting to go up there, smack her and tell her to get a life.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Thoroughly Modern Millie Shaftsbury Theatre Autumn 2003 -Summer 2004

Hoorah! A nice, tuneful, colourful, high-energy brainless Broadway musical, the kind they're not supposed to be making anymore. And with a really bright star at the centre. What more could the legendary tired businessman ask for?

Based on the 1967 movie of the country girl who comes to 1920s New York in search of a rich husband and ends up, naturally, with the boy she met-cute at the start, last season's big Broadway hit is almost assertively unoriginal, and therein lies its charm.

It doesn't advance the art form an inch. It doesn't vary from convention a smidge. It just does what it does - very, very well.

I'm not going to bother with the convoluted credits - book by A based on the film by B, new songs by C and D alongside old standards by E, F and G - except to mention that a Sullivan patter song somehow turns into a can-can number and that you get to hear that old weeper 'Mammy' sung in Chinese, which is almost worth the ticket price right there. Even the list of producers is longer than the cast lists of most West End shows.

I do have to credit director Michael Mayer for giving it all a snap and charm that never waver, choreographer Rob Ashford for a string of tap dances that start at the high level the dances in Anything Goes climax at and build from there, and designer David Gallo for creating a bright and shiny fairy tale Art Deco New York.

And at the centre is Amanda Holden. Best known as a second banana on a string of TV sitcoms, she proves herself a real musical star - singing, dancing and spreading real charm wherever she goes. She can be brassy, perky or sweet, as the song demands, and there aren't too many like that out there, either here or in New York, so she is a very welcome addition to the theatre world.

Maureen Lipman is hilarious as an over-the-top Chinese landlady in a subplot involving kidnappings and white slavery; Craig Urbani is appropriately manly as the rich man Millie thinks she wants; and Mark McGee charming as the nice guy she ends up with. Sheila Ferguson gets featured billing for a small role as a night club singer who helps bring the lovers together, though Helen Baker, as Millie's best friend, makes more of an impression.

It is fun from start to finish, and I defy anyone, from the once-a-year theatregoer to the most intellectual snob, not to have a great time.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

Zipp! Duchess Theatre Spring 2003

When I first reviewed this bubbly souffle of a show in Edinburgh last August I wrote that if it wasn't destined for the West End I'd eat Giles Brandreth's fishnet stockings. I'm glad to report that I will not have to dine on his hosiery and also that this fast-moving revue lives up to its name in both speed and delight.

The premise is to salute 100 musicals in 90 minutes, with Brandreth and his back-up team offering at least a couple of bars of familiar songs from shows ranging from 1899's Floradora to 2002's Bombay Dreams. And they do race through what are actually more than 100 numbers, with an overhead electronic sign counting them off and identifying the original shows. (The pedant in me makes me note that they do cheat a bit, with Lionel Bart's Twang! represented just by a sound effect, and The Full Monty by a sight gag, but we'll let that pass.)

The fun of the game is in trying to identify the show before the sign does, and also in enjoying the clever presentation. Just about every song is sent up as it is sung - those fishnet stockings, as you've probably guessed by now, come in the Rocky Horror section - so that there are almost as many laughs as songs. (Only two songs, both by Sondheim - no points for guessing what one of them is - are sung straight)

The songs are grouped thematically, with a medley of geographical songs, one devoted to musicals based on literary classics, one of love songs, and the like. Highlights are a hilarious deconstruction of The Sound of Music made up almost entirely of songs from other shows, a salute to megamusicals with visual gags that may prevent you from ever taking Les Mis, Phantom or Chitty Chitty seriously again, and - the high point - a mock salute to the man they call Andrew Lloyd's Bank - a brave move, considering he's their landlord at the Duchess.

Brandreth, who wrote and devised the show, is the former book-packager and member of parliament familiar to the British as a perennial chat-show guest. He makes for a genial host, sings a bit, and provides much of the visual humour, happily letting himself appear ridiculous for not the first time in his career. (Americans: imagine the effect of seeing, say, your local TV newscaster singing and dancing not too badly.)

Most of the singing is wisely given to Andrew C. Wadsworth, alternately manly and camp; Amanda Symonds, alternately brassy and soulful; and CJ Johnson, relentlessly perky; with Stuart Barr providing additional vocals and comedy from the piano, and a shamefully uncredited stage manager rushing about producing low-budget special effects.

Director Carole Todd deserves credit for keeping the whole thing moving so quickly and smoothly, with nary a low point, though even this early in its life, the thing has just the slightest air of being potted, with the cast's frozen smiles and forced laughter at Brandreth's supposed ad libs occasionally cracking.

But if you don't look too closely, and just give yourself over to the inventive fun of the thing, you'll have a hoot. As Brandreth says at the start, if you love musicals you'll get 100 for the price of one, and if you hate musicals you'll never have to see another again.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

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