The Blues Brothers
Reviewed – 21st July 2017
“the more thoughtful theatre-goer is better off spending their money elsewhere.”
The Blues Brothers film (1980) is one of my favourite musicals and I was incredibly excited to see how ‘The Blues Brothers: Summer Special’ would work at the Hippodrome Casino. I was expecting the recreation of casino lounge cabaret culture but unfortunately what should have been the perfect marriage, seemed somewhat misplaced, resisting the tone of the original cabaret sketch-style act to present a more commercialised shiny version of the ‘rock n roll party’ we’d been expecting.
The musicianship of the cast was truly excellent, but the over-budget theatricality of the production felt mismatched to the more mellow Blues tone, with not enough showmanship or popularity to recall the musical, and too many props and costume changes to act as a trendy Blues gig. ‘The Blues Brothers: Summer Special’ desperately wanted to be a cabaret, but instead of embracing the understated style of its genre, attempted to impersonate the properties of traditional West End theatre without threading the piece with any remnant of narrative.
The show begins by taking us through the musical narrative, somewhat half-heartedly, of the Blues Brothers film. Joshua Mumby (Elwood Blues) and David Kristopher-Brown (Jake Blues) are absolutely impeccable as the infamous double act with Mumby demonstrating a prowess in dance, and Kristopher-Brown letting loose some raw vocals that Belushi would be proud of. Hannah Kee and Helen Hart as the Stax Sisters give truly standout performances, particularly in their solos, though this is undermined by the issue of questionable casting.
Aretha Franklin’s renowned solos are performed technically without fault by Kee and Hart, but the lack of diversity in casting two white women to sing the music of Aretha Franklin seems to erase the necessary awareness of the roots of Blues music, an issue that even the original film recognised more conscientiously. With Arnold Mabhena, the sole diverse cast member, playing comic caricatures of Ray Charles and James Brown, the audience are left either in swept-up hysterics, or in the uncomfortable position of a predominantly white middle-class audience, watching a white-washed cast perform racially questionable stereotypes. Although the original film relies somewhat upon these racially caricatured moments, their re-enactment for a modern audience seems unconsidered, lacking the self-conscious irony necessary to satire.
The second act proved much more energetic than the first, demanding a transition, somewhat jarringly, into clap-along audience participation, without actually earning our attention. With a two-hour run time, it felt that the piece would have worked much better as a shorter late-night show with a chatty Rat-Pack cabaret-style audience set-up, and more casual audience address. Several songs from the end, the audience are asked to stand, a request which forces the hand of the polite British among us, with a few more strong-willed members utterly refusing to take part, and the feeling of compulsory fun and not enough alcohol permeates the air. The fear of embarrassment left us all clapping along with the desperate fervour of your 6-year old niece’s 20 minute clarinet solo at the school concert.
Every star of this review was earned by the incredible musical talent of the cast, but the production team’s attempt to glossy-up what is effectively a musical cabaret cheapened their efforts, leaving them looking like a particularly talented holiday-entertainment team. With full-price tickets sitting at £42.50, and with the casual racism of a vintage sitcom, a younger liberal audience is certainly not the intended demographic; for an older tourist audience, with money to burn in search of a drunken laugh, this is the perfect night-out. In the heart of the West End, with a host of productions to choose from, the more thoughtful theatre-goer is better off spending their money elsewhere.
Reviewed by Tasmine Airey
Photography by Darren Bell
THE BLUES BROTHERS
is at the Hippodrome Casino until 26th August