Kilworth House Theatre, Leicestershire – until 17 September 2017
Stephen Mear’s take on Top Hat, just opened at Leicestershire’s Kilworth House Theatre is further proof that for this summer at least, the very best musical theatre openings are all taking place outside of London.
Top Hat is one of those shows that feels like it should have been around forever but is, in fact, a relatively new arrival to the stage. The show premiered in London only a few years ago with a new book from Matthew White and Howard Jacques that was lovingly based upon the RKO film of the same name. Fans of both dance and Hollywood will, of course, know that Top Hat (the movie) is arguably the partnership pinnacle of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
So in putting on his Top Hat, Mear has extremely large shoes to fill – and he fills them magnificently. The story behind the show is the most ridiculously light-hearted piece of froth – theres’s farce, dropped trousers, mistaken identity and a multitude of malapropisms. It’s as corny as heck, but as the comedy greats of years gone by have demonstrated, this type of comedy is the toughest to master.
Mear and his cast however don’t just master the gags – they make them soar. The timing is spot on throughout and aside from the song and dance, the contributions from Ashley Knight as the much put upon valet Bates and Stephane Anelli as Alberto Beddini, an Italian fashion designer / Lothario, are a masterclass in comedy cameos.
But of course Top Hat is all about hearing those beautiful Irving Berlin songs and seeing them danced to perfection. The lead role of Jerry Travers is taken by Dan Burton – a performer who has much history with Mear – and the director knows just how to coax magic from this talented man. On stage virtually throughout the first half (and much of the second) Burton brings his mellifluous tenor voice to the show’s classic songs in a way that earlier productions just haven’t been able to reach. As the show opens with Puttin’ On The Ritz, from the number’s very first bars the evening’s standard of song and dance is defined. And as is Mear’s way, the ensemble have been drilled to ruthless perfection – to watch these routines is to float away in an ethereal delight.
Opposite Burton, Lauren Stroud plays the feisty Dale Tremont. Stroud mirrors Burton’s dance talent from the outset, and when we eventually hear her sing (well into act one with You’re Easy To Dance With) it’s a delight that has been well worth the wait. The two lead the show perfectly.
In close support as the lead comic protagonists, Charles Brunton and Nia Jermin are wonderfully cast as Horace and Madge Hardwick. Their overstated comic lampoonery (and Brunton’s buffoonery) is perfectly weighted, making the narrative flow effortlessly. When they finally get their chance to sing in the deliciously anti-romantic, Outside of That, I Love You, its yet another barrel of (beautifully sung and danced) laughs.
There is excellence elsewhere, nestling in the show’s company with barely a programme credit to show for it. Daisy Boyles puts in a fabulous turn leading the delightful What Is Love? routine, while the footwork from the enchanting Chantel Bellew, dancing opposite Burton in an early routine, is another of the many gems that encrust this production.
Berlin’s melodies demand a strong band and Michael England’s 11 piece ensemble, tucked just off stage in a marquee, immaculately capture the elegance of the era and its melodies, with toes set tapping from the overture. The show’s songs are massive and England’s orchestra rise magnificently to the challenge.
The open-air setting of Kilworth House is skilfully tackled by the show’s team. Morgan Large’s set offers an Art Deco vision that is as ingeniously multi-functional as it is dreamily elegant, never overshadowing the performers, merely enhancing their work. Similarly Chris Whybrow’s sound design works well with the venue’s unconventional acoustics – not a word or note is missed, while Jason Taylor’s lighting work takes on an increasingly subtle beauty as the sun slowly sets.
There’s no finer finer tribute to the American Songbook in the land, but only a very privileged few will get a chance to savour this masterpiece of musical theatre – the run is completely sold out!
Runs until 17th September