‘All just a bit too weak & corny’: THE GLENN MILLER STORY – West End ★★★

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London Coliseum – until 18 August 2018

There were moments when this was actually frightening. It’s interesting to see Tommy Steele at 81 playing a London audience, which he clearly loves, but whoever he was, he wasn’t Glenn Miller.

In a heavily papered and discounted two-thirds empty house one of the few groups of women who’d paid ready money for tickets sat behind me and were eagerly anticipating meeting Steele outside the stage door. “It’s okay,” said one who was a nurse, “I’ve got a portable defibrillator in my bag.” Steele also made jokes about his age in a jovial introduction, in his own cockney voice. If he’d carried on as narrator and let someone else play the bandleader in this thirties… we might have been OK.

The cast excuses themselves as being the ‘Glenn Miller Appreciation Society’ who’ll be telling the story, and it could introduce a layer of deliberate comedy if they said they were all actually pensioners. Sadly, it includes some terrible bumblers like Linal Haft, whose cliched portrayal of the band’s financier Cy Shribman relies on mugging at the audience as though he has done something clever, seeking approval like a toddler with a well-formed poo.

Above all this sits Marti Webb, who still has the voice and gives colour to numbers like ‘Moonlight Serenade’ and ‘Zing Went The Strings of My Heart’, and has the grace to look sheepish when portraying Miller’s 26-year old sweetheart. Unfortunately, although Steele can hold a tune, when she duets with him he’s whisperingly underpowered and often indistinct in the pacier lyrics.

He’s also moved off-stage whenever there’s any heavy lifting to do in either the singing or the dancing, because he’s inaudible over either the orchestra or the tap dancing, but making way for both a slick team of six ‘kids’ who enliven the swing routines, and of course Rich Morris’s hard-working genuine-sounding 15-piece band.  The ripeness of the brass and the authentic same-octave harmonies between tenor sax and clarinet really are pitch perfect.

When the band aren’t playing, it’s all just a bit too weak and corny – from the underwritten scenes in which Miller reflects on his tutoring by music professor Joseph Schillinger or argues for a nanosecond with the military about taking a band overseas, to Steele’s substitution of his trademark toothy grin for any likeness to the bandleader in age, countenance, agility or accent, or an ability to either conduct or play the trombone.

I doubt the executives at Bill Kenwright Ltd read my stuff but if you do – for heaven’s sake call Robert Fairchild or Gavin Creel or someone who can sing and dance to his strengths and convincingly play a 35-year old American who sounds as though he comes from Iowa rather than the Dickens Estate in Bermondsey.

Combining a realistic portrayal of Glenn Miller with Steele’s genial narration could be the saving of this piece.

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Johnny Fox
‘Johnny Fox’ studied Theatre at Lancaster University and Journalism at City before realising there was no money in either profession and concentrating instead on interior design for investment banks in Singapore, New York and Moscow. Back home, he wrote mostly about theatre, mostly in London, for arts and events websites including Londonist and The Pink Paper. He blogged independently at www.johnnyfox.london. He passed away, after a long battle with cancer, in May 2020.

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Johnny Fox
‘Johnny Fox’ studied Theatre at Lancaster University and Journalism at City before realising there was no money in either profession and concentrating instead on interior design for investment banks in Singapore, New York and Moscow. Back home, he wrote mostly about theatre, mostly in London, for arts and events websites including Londonist and The Pink Paper. He blogged independently at www.johnnyfox.london. He passed away, after a long battle with cancer, in May 2020.

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