Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London – until 17 April 2022
Any study of the history of popular music would be a very slim tome indeed without the contribution of Jewish songwriters, and that’s doubly true when it comes to considering the greatest showbusiness hits. This power-packed musical revue revels in some of Hollywood’s most beloved melodies and lyrics, while providing a potted history of the silver screen.
It’s a joyful couple of hours but proves surprisingly hard-hitting as it charts the American journey west of European immigrants and the anti-Semitism they faced, then the sometimes shamefully muted response to said prejudice from within their own ranks once the millions had been made.
Chris Burgess’s nicely turned script splits the narrative between a quartet of performers and periodically segues into conventional ‘book scenes’ which reframe familiar numbers in the context of the story being told. A particularly strong example of this is the employment of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Carefully Taught’ from South Pacific to illustrate the conflict between two movie moguls -one Jewish, one Gentile- over bringing a quintessentially Jewish story to the screen (unexpectedly, it is the former who is resistant).
If the opening section, where Miss Saigon’s ‘The American Dream’ gives way to Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz’s bouncily cynical ‘Greenhorns’ from Rags, is a bit of a headscratcher since neither musical has yet had a movie iteration, it is still winningly performed and arranged. From Sondheim to Berlin, Kander and Ebb to George M. Cohan, and Marvin Hamlisch to Mel Brooks, the panoply of Jewish talent represented here fair takes the breath away. Many of the songs are necessarily presented in truncated form, which can get a little frustrating, but at least ensures that Cressida Carré’s richly enjoyable production never outstays it’s welcome.
Closing the first half with Cabaret’s ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ is a direct lift from the musical currently tearing the roof off the Playhouse in the West End nightly; if not exactly used here with any great originality, it works for the story, and is still a powerful way to send audiences out into the interval of a show that turns out to be less of a celebration and more of a critique than one might have been expecting.
At other times, the show offers some delightful abbreviated versions of film classics, including a deliciously funny affectionate parody of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer. The Fiddler On The Roof section is another highlight – ‘Tradition’ thrills the blood, as it should, and Andy Collyer’s terrific arrangements make the small but mighty cast and band sound like the entire village of Anatevka are right there on the Gatehouse stage. Carré’s direction and choreography strikes a perfect balance between jazz hands exuberance and a still, centred gravitas. It’s really superb work.
None of this would land as well as it does without a stellar company, and casting director Jane Deitch has sourced a quartet of world class talents. In a remarkably assured professional debut, Mackenzie Mellen, resembling a young Liza Minnelli, brings gamine charm, a dancers physicality and a gorgeous, rangy voice. Opposite her, Jack Reitman provides formidable versatility, matinee idol looks and more terrific vocals.
Howard Samuels is a dream at working an audience: wildly funny but able to turn the mood on a dime, his glorious voice like cream one moment, and gravel the next. West End veteran Sue Kelvin is possibly the nearest thing to Merman that this country has ever produced: a thrilling performer with heart, unerring comic instincts and a magnificent Broadway belt, it’s almost impossible to take your eyes off her.
Amir Shoenfeld’s multi-tasking four piece band is exquisite and frequently sounds like there are many more pieces: the whole show is a feast for the ears.
All in all, this is a deeply lovable slice of music theatre. More than a nostalgia trip, and more fun than a history lesson, it is a testimony to resilience, chutzpah and sheer golden talent. Enthusiastically recommended.
‘A testament to resilience, chutzpah & sheer golden talent’: @AlunJohnHood on @AriaEnts revue #JewishHollywood. At @GatehouseLondon til 17 Apr. #musicals #OffWestEnd #theatrereviews