History Lesson: there’s no shortage of backstage musicals. There’s no shortage of musicals set in the Depression or prohibition era either – from Annie to Chicago to Windy City everyone from the Gershwins (who did it in Of Thee I Sing) on down has had a crack at it, and our home-grown Phil Wilmott is just about to launch one actually called Prohibition.
Interestingly it was George S Kaufman who collaborated with the Gershwins on Of Thee I Sing in 1931 and his writing partner Moss Hart who signed up with Irving Berlin to write Face The Music, which opened just eight weeks later and at a theatre twice the size. Of Thee I Sing got a fifteen-month run and many revivals, becoming the first musical to win a Pulitzer prize, while Face the Music went nowhere. Maybe it’s just over-supply?
Of course, Brendan Matthew and Aaron Clingham’s production at Ye Old Rose and Crowne Walthamstow has much more than documentary interest. As has become a tradition there, a (very) young and energetic cast attacks the old script and hit-less score with verve, and while you probably won’t hum ‘I Say It’s Spinach and the Hell With It’ much past the bus-stop, you will have had an enjoyable evening and seen some first-class Broadway hoofing.
It’s the dancing that sparkles in this show, choreographer Sally Brooks’ routines are fresh, slick and varied – pity Lewis Dewar Foley and Ceris Hine tap louder than they can sing so the lyrics of ‘You Must Be Born With It’ are lost, but here in his professional debut Foley is definitely a young man to watch whenever someone gives him another job and a radio mike. Nifty dancing and spot-on comic timing made James Houlbrooke and Joanne Clifton‘s jazz ballet in handcuffs the high point for me – Scott Mills’ Strictly Come Dancing squeeze Clifton ably delivering a sharp and funny portrait of the tart-with-a-heart without which no backstage musical is complete. Watch your backs, Strallens, if she goes down the musical theatre route. Houlbrooke is another Clingham protégé consolidating his career with successive productions, like hardworking cast-mate Ross McNeill, each now ready for his breakthrough role.
The central love story between Joanna Hughes and Alessandro Lubrano feels flatter than the comic scenes and quirky cameos, notably Laurel Dougall as a Fifth Avenue princess and David Anthony as her much-bribed police-chief husband. Samuel Haughton is equally fine as sardonic producer Hal Reisman with lots of excellent throwaway lines which through no fault of his own weren’t caught entirely by the whole audience, and when he sings ‘How Can I Change My Luck’ you notice a more classical edge in his technique, a real pleasure to hear.
An absent cellist meant the upstage orchestra was one short but their melodies certainly lingered on. Sound balance seems a constant issue in this space, although it’s easier in the bigger production numbers and climaxes in a fabulous set-piece courtroom finale which starts with Lubrano’s genre-busting anthem ‘Manhattan Madness‘ and builds in thrilling layers until the cast really do dance to beat the band.
Just one tip: in any further revival, put ‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’ into the show. Irving won’t mind now.
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