“It’s a delight to see such a young cast take on Herman’s music”
Tough week? Life getting you down? Then hurry along to the Union Theatre in Southwark for some musical therapy. Showtune, a two act tribute to the music and lyrics of the perennially upbeat Jerry Herman, will give you The Best of Times, and (I) Promise You A Happy Ending in this lively revival of Paul Gilger’s Jerry Herman fest. Produced by Sasha Regan, Showtune takes place in a charming auditorium underneath some railway arches. It is an intimate space that produces a surprisingly big Broadway sound, and you will be impressed by the skilful direction and choreography of Luke Byrne that permits a cast of ten to sing and dance without falling into the laps of the front row.
There is lots to like in this ninety minute medley of songs from Herman’s hit musicals. The music includes several from Mame, Hello Dolly!, Mack and Mabel, Dear World, and La Cage Aux Folles. The cast manage all these in a performing space that is crammed full of the flotsam and jetsam of a rehearsal room, complete with a suggestion of a dressing room, and of course, a grand piano. Somehow the cast work around these obstacles to keep the audience’s attention firmly focused on the singing, and yes, even a tap dancing number (Tap Your Troubles Away). In these endeavours they are ably supported by the talented Henry Brennan, pianist and musical director. It’s a delight to see such a young cast take on Herman’s music, and while the singing is at times a little uneven, special mention must be given to Aidan Cutler for his poignant sound; and to Alex Burns and Ella-Maria Danson for their spirited singing duel in Bosom Buddies. But the whole cast brought off the complicated ensemble numbers with verve and nerve — and was rewarded by an appreciative audience.
Showtune reminds us that Jerry Herman’s heartfelt songs are the perfect antidote for our stressed out modern lives —and if some of the lyrics hark back to a more old-fashioned age (It Takes A Woman from Hello, Dolly! for example) — it is also Herman’s inspiration to give us an opportunity to see two men sing a tender duet to each other (Song On The Sand from Cage Aux Folles). There is enough flexibility in Herman’s work to ensure that a compilation musical like Showtune has many years of successful revivals ahead of it. Enjoy this one.
“we can almost smell the absinthe wafting through the high kicks, cartwheels and splits”
This year, in the fourth of the Union Theatre’s ‘Essential Classics’ seasons, director Phil Willmott has turned to the theme of ‘Enemies of the People’, highlighting the process by which a ruling elite can attempt to silence not just opposition but also more benign threats that come in the shape of a ‘free spirit’. History has often taught us that the privileged class does not always know what is best for the common good; an argument that comes to the fore in the new musical, “Can-Can!”.
Not to be confused with Cole Porter’s fifties musical of the same name, also set in 1890s Paris, “Can-Can!” takes us into the heart of La Belle Époque, when Paris, formally scandalised by its artistic community, began to celebrate these former outcasts. Willmott’s production, directed by Phil Setren, is brazen and brave, capturing the very exuberance of the period. A real kaleidoscope of a show, it wears its influences openly. Taking as its starting point Jacques Offenbach’s ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’, which introduced the Can-Can dance to the world, it fuses operetta with music hall and transplants it into a plot loosely based on Arthurs Wing Pinero’s ‘Trelawny of the Wells’. Onto this already rich backdrop are added the real-life cabaret characters from the Moulin Rouge (in particular Jane Avril and ‘La Goulue’) made famous by Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings (the artist himself is also painted into the scenario).
The concept is fascinating, and inspired decisions are made. But like the assortment of source material, the show itself is a bit of a mixed bag. It takes until the second act to find its true tempo. For a musical comedy the timing sometimes slips and misses the pulse, while the rhythm of the dialogue suffers from palpitations. But the choreography does not miss a beat. Adam Haigh’s routines are simply stunning, thrillingly performed by the all-dancing cast whose energy threatens to burn a hole in Justin Williams’ and Jonny Rust’s evocative rotating set. Further aided by Penn O’Gara’s authentically flamboyant costumes, we can almost smell the absinthe wafting through the high kicks, cartwheels and splits.
The script, however, occasionally threatens to douse the fuse that is leading to the explosive finale. But luckily the spark manages to stay alight thanks to a story that bears all the hall marks of a well-structured, crowd-pleasing yarn. Jane Avril (the subtly operatic Kathy Peacock) gives up the stage when she decides to marry her well-healed sweetheart, Christian Bontoux (Damjan Mrackovich) only to find life unbearably dull, trapped in her fiancé’s austere household that detests her unrestrained personality. Escaping back to the theatre, she breaks her own heart as well as that of her beloved, who has also defied his tyrannical father in order to pursue the troubadour life.
If the action occasionally lags it is soon buoyed along by some stand out moments: the dream-like ballet sequence between Peacock and Mrackovich; or the final scenes of reconciliation during which Phil Willmott’s authoritarian character finally secures the audience’s sympathy. Secrets are revealed in some heartfelt revelations to the famous Cabaret Queen ‘La Goulue’ (a marvellously camped up performance from PK Taylor) that give us a surprising back story.
Despite a few splutterings on the way, “Can-Can!” ends with a bang and reminds us of the true intention of the piece. Which ultimately is to entertain. That it succeeds is confirmed by the exuberant hand-clapping from the audience along to the closing number.