FringeReview UK 2018
Paul Hart directs this Watermill Theatre revival, choreographed by Nathan A Wright with Diego Pitarch’s old 1900-style theatre with boxes doing service for a Broadway and an old grand Nevada location. Howard Hudson’s lighting plays against haze and other effects. Pitarch’s also designs costumes. Tom Marshall’s sound system avoids the boomy intrusiveness that mars some shows. Catherine Jayes musical supervision and arrangements are key to it.
This is a blast of the purest kind. You have to see it. If you know Gershwin musicals – and how often are they revived? – you’ll possibly scratch your head. There’s Girl Crazy from 1930… Exactly. Crazy For You is a multiple Tony-winning rewrite from 1991, more politically correct (clue’s in the original title) including the great Girl Crazy pieces like ‘I Got Rhythm’ and adding Gershwin standards from earlier (‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ from 1926’s Oh Kay!) but mostly the later 1930s including ‘Shall We Dance?’ ‘Slap that Bass’ and ‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’ from the 1937 film Shall We Dance? with Fred Astaire singing. Gershwin hated Hollywood; this expanded show really does bring these pieces in and give them a warm embraceable you show.
Paul Hart directs this Watermill Theatre revival with pizzazz, choreographed spectacularly by Nathan A Wright – and there’s more to say about that – with Diego Pitarch’s old 1900-style theatre with boxes doing service for a Broadway and an old grand Nevada location. The backdrops shift from frantic New York to sleepy ghost town peeled with emigration (from the exhausted gold rush), nicely detailed; where Howard Hudson’s lighting plays against haze and other effects like sequined stars and pin-point effects. Pitarch’s costumes – the dresses in particular – are stunning, and sometimes outrageous fun (Claire Sweeney’s reds in particular). It’s a rich set for a talent-rich show. Tom Marshall’s sound system avoids the boomy intrusiveness that mars some shows: he leaves it to the instrumentalists.
That’s everyone in the cast by the way. Catherine Jayes musical supervision and arrangements rocket this musical into the best multi-vocal/instrumental ensemble I’ve seen since Craig Revel Horwood’s revival of Sunset Boulevard in 2009
It’s 1991. So we might get a more serious plot at least? Not a bit of it. It’s an authentically daft as anything from the period, and sits perfectly with the music. Tom Chambers’ Bobby Child’s a rich man kept on a retainer by Lottie (Kate Milner-Evans) and ordered to service her property empire. Except he’s an aspiring tap-dancing boy perennially auditioning and stepping on the toes of Neil Ditt’s Bela Zangler, Hungarian emigrant impresario. The five Follies Girls love him, but Claire Sweeney’s Irene Roth has been claiming him these past five years as a fiancé, in spite of Lottie’s disapproval.
Irene’s formidable, maybe she reminds Bobby of someone? The subtext of two Jewish mamas fighting over a poor little rich boy would tickle Gershwin, who refused to commit till near the end. If Chambers intones ‘K-Ra-zy For You’ and with the Follies Girls ‘I Can’t be Bothered Now’ its clear he doesn’t have much choice. Lottie tells him to get out to Nevada and reclaim an imminently forfeit theatre property, or she’s cut off. This is 1930. Where’s a boy to get a remittance?
In ‘Bidin’ My Time’ the Nevada ensemble’s comical sloth pace counterpoints new York’s hectic pace, and we encounter a new host, chief among them Charlotte Wakefield’s Polly. Wakefield’s a revelation, a mix of young Ethel Mermon mixed with a little calamity. Her vocal flexibility suggests but certainly doesn’t deliver a raw edge cutting straight through to the top, a soprano range with a laser attached. She exudes presence as the touch-tender woman in a one-girl town. Which makes her kinda edgy and liable to knee a jerk where it hurts.
This is where the instrumentalists kick in. Oh and the Broadway crowd, since though Polly’s got an aversion to this Bobby Child who’s about to foreclose on their theatre. Not only that, but Christopher Fry’s trombone-playing Lank the local one-language hotel wants to see the old place closed (he later retitles it Chez Lank’s…). And Polly open to him. Bobby realising Polly’s aversion after an initial tap-dance offensive’s halted by his revealing his name , decides that after all Zangler and his Follies Girls will turn up and rescue the place with a show (they’re incredibly charmed by Bobby, but three thousand miles? well it’s a show). And… it’s Zangler after a fashion as Bobby pretends with Zangler’s forlorn girlfriend Tess’s help (Hollie Cassar, melancholic mirth also alto sax, piano, and bass) to dress as Zangler. Who’s far more attractive to Polly. Then the real Zangler turns up. He enjoys a whacky period mirror number in identical suits with Bobby disguised as him in ‘What Causes That?’ Then Lottie…
You don’t need to know the rest of this, but see it for yourself. There’s many reasons. First this is a supreme ensemble piece. In uproariously choreographed numbers like ‘The Real American Folk Song Is A Rag’ the Follies upend themselves so their feet act as drums to a wild timps show. Chambers and Sweeney are excellent, the best I’ve seen Chambers. Sweeney vamps with a fantastically – and I mean there’s fantasy – choreographed number in ‘Naughty Baby’. A bit ‘What Lola wants’ with Cyd Charisse. Vocally she’s a superb mix of character and dark soprano. It’s a slightly ungrateful part though; Sweeney’s got far less to do than Polly and Wakefield, but Sweeney’s presence is unmistakable and she stamps Irene Roth out somewhere between her high heels and cowboy boots.
Most of all though this is a magnificent ensemble piece, and the talent of the wind and brass, the two violinists, Arthur Boan (Custus) and Kate Robson-Stuart’s Mitzi lurching from Broadway through blue-grass to hillbilly. There’s also – and it’s worth listing this astonishing band – Abi Casson Thompson’s Betty on flute and whistle, Ditt’s drums (well he is an impresario), Stacey Ghent’s dipsy Joyce Grenfell-like British explorer of the wild west Patricia Fodor on trumpet, Matthew James Hinchliffe’s Sam clarinet and much else, Daniel Bolton on guitar, Kieran Kuypers’ Billy (and comical Brit explorer Eugene Fodor) on tenor and baritone sax and accordion, Milner’s Evans’ Lottie on Xylophone and piano, Emma Jane Morton’s Margie alto and baritone sax. Ned Rudkins-Stow plays several things but he’s the double bass who in a brief demonstrations whoops from beginner to professional in eight bars and scares the New York out of Zangler. Finally Seren Sandham-Davies Patsy on trumpet and banjo, Mark Sangster’s guitar and piano. He plays Everett Baker, Polly’s warily enthused tap-dancing father who at one point comes out and addresses us the Nevada audience.
That’s a chewy name call. The great coup of the second half though is the way it pulls in late numbers from Gershwin. So you’d expect bassist Rudkins-Stow to star in ‘Slap that Bass’ in the first half, but Chambers manages an appealing and heartfelt ‘They Can’t take That Away From Me’ after he and Polly seem to part, he for New York. ‘Polly’s reply ‘But Not For Me’ is her heartbreaker, and Bobby’s return ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’ with the Follies Five is given new life from its filmic original. You can’t help thinking Gershwin would be delighted to see his orphan film songs rescued for a live show such as this.
This revival or a revision is as good as it gets. Wakefield must take the palm, but everyone’s exceptionally fine. What makes this outstanding though is the new choreography and musical arrangements – the finale to ‘I Got Rhythm’ with its intricate foregrounding and back-steps of an entire ensemble is just the first half’s ‘top that next’. It’s answered in a swirl of numbers that make the second half even more appealing: deeper, more emotionally engaged than just comic, and heart-warming. In terms of talent on display worked to a supreme ensemble pitch, this is quite simply the most stunning pure musical I’ve seen this year.