The Theatreguide.London Review
New London Theatre Spring 2016
One of the truly greatest musicals of the American repertoire here gets a production (from the Sheffield Crucible) that is merely pretty good.
No one and nothing in it is bad, but too little is more than O K. What pleasures you get – and they will be there – will come almost entirely from the material rather than the presentation.
Consider the glorious Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein score – Only Make Believe, Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man, Life Upon The Wicked Stage, Why Do I Love You and of course the iconic Ol' Man River (and there are fifteen more).
You could put talented singers on a bare stage with that list of songs and produce a memorable evening. Director Daniel Evans and designer Lez Brotherson do more than that, but not with any particular effect.
The problem may partly be with the New London's very large stage, so that even elaborate sets and a large cast look lost up there, giving the physical effect of skimpiness.
But the production itself feels B-level. The cast are solid but with little real star quality, so you sometimes feel that a stage full of understudies wouldn't lose much.
The romantic leads, Chris Peluso and Gina Beck, are as bland as romantic leads tend to be. They both look attractive and sing well, but there is no evident chemistry between them or between either and the audience.
Beck's operatic voice tempts her to oversing, and some clumsy sound engineering transforms what should be soaring high notes into near-screeching.
(The same sound engineering – no need to name and shame – also sabotages most of the chorus numbers, where a combination of muddy diction and over-amplification renders Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics unintelligible – surely a hanging offence.)
Acting and singing honours go to Rebecca Trehearn as the tragic Julie, whose big number, Just My Bill, rightly stops the show.
Unfortunately the plot limits her to a couple of scenes at the beginning and one near the end, and when she's not around the show misses the emotional and musical power she brings.
Emmanuel Kojo seems to promise something new and exciting in Joe by singing Ol' Man River with more anger than weary resignation, and his action in some early scenes and central placement in others seem to be setting him up as the moral voice of the show.
But that concept, if it actually was there, is dropped quickly, and by the end Joe is a stereotyped comic character just this side of Stepin Fetchit.
Alistair David's choreography never catches fire, and no one else really registers except for Malcolm Sinclair as Captain Andy, who begins by underplaying to the point of hardly being there but subtly grows into a warm, wise and droll characterisation.
But oh, that glorious score! Come for that, and just try to pretend that the production is as wonderful.
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