Lyceum Theatre, London – 11 & 18 December 2017
When I lived in New York it was a decade-long tradition to stage Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens’ musical version of A Christmas Carol in the 5500-seat boxing arena that is Madison Square Garden. Every night for a month. The main customers were people who couldn’t get tickets for Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas show. However, no amount of spectacle, William Ivey Long costumery, Susan Stroman choreography, bussed in children’s choirs or barrel loads of schmaltz shipped directly from Zabar’s were spared in its production.
I think it was Tim Curry playing Scrooge the Christmas I wisely avoided it by going to Europe for a genuine winter wonderland rather than the whimsical Olde Worlde London set which looked like St Paul’s flanked with Narnia.
Mercifully it didn’t catch on over here, and part of the fondness I have for the wonderful London Musical Theatre Orchestra, who are presenting it for a second time at the Lyceum Theatre in the Strand, is that I wish they’d now stop. It is glorious to sit, especially in the circle, and see this technically excellent 32-piece orchestra straining at its leash to deliver a glorious score. It’s wonderful to see conductor Freddie Tapner with the haircut and enthusiastic shoulder action of a young Andre Previn, urging them to greater and greater heights.
But, to misquote Dickens, the musical itself is the biggest turkey in the shop. Very few people can craft a tune like Alan Menken, and I’m a huge admirer of Lynn Ahrens’ intelligent lyrics – I think ‘Back to Before’ from Ragtime is one of the most perfect eleven o’clock numbers ever written – but when in 1994 they came together to construct A Christmas Carol, the planets just didn’t align and the score is near-miss after near-miss after, in some cases, stinker.
Every musical cliché was pressed into service by the hapless pair: tubular bells for the chimes of London, traditional English airs, a procession of ballads, waltzes and anthems that strain against Dickensian realism with their eternal brightness of the American mind, culminating in a ball at Mr Fezziwig’s which could have been lifted from the finale of a pantomime.
Of course, the LMTO give this their best shot – but the talented and experienced cast are underused with such material, you hardly get to hear Michael Xavier carry a solo line, and real-life husband-and-wife Nicholas Colicos and Sophie-Louise Dann have to ham up the Fezziwigs to drive their songs home. There are audibility issues too.
One of the ironies about this event is that the Lyceum is normally home to Disney’s plasticised The Lion King, and the LMTO are so much up the deeper end of the musical theatre swimming pool, with careful and complex orchestrations, and a fresh, clean sound. It’s a gloriously decorated theatre, and could beautifully frame a cleverer musical.
There are so many better works which haven’t been performed in London recently and richly deserve the LMTO treatment – Pal Joey, Windy City, Valmouth, On Your Toes all have far more intricate and enjoyable scores, or if you want a musical set at this time of year, how about Promises, Promises – there can’t be many shows where the heroine tries to commit suicide on Christmas Eve.
It also looks like the Old Vic’s A Christmas Carol is a barnstorming success and may become an annual fixture. Time to re-think.