Barbican Theatre, London – until 31 October 2021
The big musicals are back: two dark-edged, South Pacific at Chichester and Carousel imminent at Regent’s Park, while halfway between them flowers this delicious, de-lovely, entirely happy lark. Cole Porter at his sharpest sails his three-funnelled liner on the way to Yurrup: SS America, shipping American dreams and fantasies of 1934. There are celebrity gangsters and torch-singers, big stock-exchange money and big energy, jazzy lapdancers and a touching belief that poor old England is best represented by a silly-ass in tweeds who doesn’t understand words like smooch.
Add a book co-written by PG Wodehouse, master-designer of silly-asses and sporting gals who invent mad plots to help their chums, and you’re there. So are we, rejoicing in a packed and unmasked house – my first since Covid – where the first glimpse of the conductor bobbing up in a captain’s hat brought a roar of happy glee. Already an achievement, given that the Barbican Theatre is the most dispiriting auditorium in the country: cavernous yet claustrophobic. It says much that for once, that didn’t matter. The roars of joy kept coming, starting at the line “there’s no cure like travel…’
Kathleen Marshall’s direction is straight-up classic Broadway (none of the mischievous camp-edges of Daniel Evans’ gorgeous 2015 touring production) and at its heart is a straight-up Broadway royalty in Sutton Foster’s Reno. In a series of memorable evening dresses and one sailor-suit she is a smiling, wisecracking well-seasoned stormer, the sort of legend who can lead a massive, all-singing, mass tap routine at the end of the first half and still whirl round with enough breath to hit the money-note.
She dominates – as she should – Samuel Edwards’ rather bland Billy, but finds her true match onstage as well as in-book when Haydn Oakley is at last released from the Jacob-Rees-Moggy tweedy-twit character in the final scenes to growl and swing from the prom deck with the Gypsy in his soul. There’s a pretty fine match for her too in Robert Lindsay, deploying his favourite cuff-shooting, shrugging, hat-tipping gangster mode as Moonface, never missing a beat or a gag.
What more can I say? All the set-pieces are rocking treats, the choreography of the charismatic revival-meeting positively alarming (Marshall also choreographs). The set is elegant, and the seagull-on-wire only crashed into the funnels once. It got applause of its own, that bird, because hell, we were all just so damn happy to be back and crowded, and making a noise.
And so, by the look of it, were the cast.