“what the play lacks in catchy tunes, the performers near-on make up for in jazz-handed, high-kicking delivery”
The 1930s really marked the beginning of the popular musical, with big names like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter writing for the big screen. Similarly, jazz and blues had just about found its way into every kind of popular music, counting Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald amongst its big names. Sure, the beginning of the decade was blighted by the Great Depression, and the end of the decade saw the beginning of the Second World War. But great music persisted, trying to wrench those tired spirits out of their misery, and give them a moment’s reprieve. So if you’re going to set a musical in the ‘30s, you might have an awful lot to live up to (I’m thinking Anything Goes, Top Hat, Guys and Dolls) but you’ve also got so much to draw from.
At first, Reputation, as directed by Warren Wills, appears to have gone for a small blues set-up, with a pianist and a double-bassist stage left, playing the audience in with smoky blues and jazz riffs. But as soon as the lights dim, these two gentlemen proceed to accompany a bland, derivative, twenty-first century Broadway-style repertoire, with very little to suggest the varied and splendid music of the period. There’s one big number that livens it up a little, ‘Protect your Reputation’, a cynical guide to success sung by the play’s villain, Freddy Larceny (Jeremy Secomb), but that’s it really.
The plot itself might have legs: Michelle (Maddy Banks), a young American girl studying at a finishing school in Paris, has secretly written a novel. She spots an ad in Variety looking for new stories to be turned in to movies and decides to take a chance and send in her book, along with the $20 admission fee. The ad being a scam, she is promptly rejected. But two years later, it transpires her story has been stolen and made in to a major Hollywood blockbuster, so she goes in search of justice.
It could be a nice David and Goliath, victory-for-justice kind of story. But instead we’re dragging our heels, desperate to get to the completely predictable ending, which might be forgivable if we didn’t have to sit through track after track of forgettable numbers.
The bulk of the cast generally remains on stage throughout, which is completely reasonable considering the layout of the room. What’s odd and quite distracting, though, is the choice to have those not involved with a scene face the wall, their noses near enough pressed up against it. It looks like they’ve done something naughty and are on a time-out.
The saving grace is casting director Anne Vosser’s eye for talent. On the whole, the cast’s abilities far exceed the quality of the show. Harmonies are tight, and what the play lacks in catchy tunes, the performers near-on make up for in jazz-handed, high-kicking delivery. Ed Wade, playing the bashful love interest, deserves special mention for his surprisingly syrupy falsetto, though he sports a completely anachronistic slicked-back ponytail, presumably because he didn’t want to chop his hair off for what has turned out to be not much.
It’s less what Reputation is that disappoints, than what it could have been. With a multi-talented cast, a perfectly fine plot, some nifty choreography (Tamsyn Salter) and a decade of musical inspiration to choose from, somehow the result is distinctly mediocre and forgettable. On the plus side, it’s unlikely to make a big enough splash to ruin anyone’s reputation.
“A louder voice, greater dynamic variation and some brutal editing are needed to keep it afloat in the current swamp of new musicals”
The deluge of new musicals on the London theatre scene is a double-edged sword. Whilst this might please devotees of the genre, the wider appeal inevitably evaporates. And for composers and producers, this overcrowding adds its own challenges. The annual BEAM festival for new musicals, for example, received over three hundred pitches to be whittled down to fifty, while the West End continues to churn out re-issues, jukebox musicals, imports and any old film titles.
Thankfully there are now theatres dedicated to developing and promoting new musicals. The Other Palace is at the forefront of this movement, accepting submissions year-round as well as staging its ‘new musical workshop sharings’ where the audience is at the core of the process, witnessing the evolving show and offering feedback. “Normality” is one such musical testing the water. Subtitled “A Musical Guide to Quantifying Love in a World of Frauds and Scammers”, it is as quirky and zestful as its tag line suggests. Writers Jules Kleiser and Nige Reid are both song writers/musicians and have written the score for a four-piece rock band and ten voices. Under Charlotte Peters’ stylish direction, the cast of ten fill the stage, and the auditorium, creating a host of characters without feeling overcrowded.
At the centre is Norman Goodman, a small town, prog-rock obsessed keyboard player, with a nerdiness that is off the scale. Thinking that he is auditioning for a life changing gig he has, in fact, wandered into a corporate interview for a dodgy City trading company. Failing the interview, he nevertheless impresses by fixing the office computer. Invited to design an IT system to predict market trends for the firm, he then unwittingly finds himself embroiled in a Machiavellian financial scam. Norman’s narrow outlook on life is cruelly broadened as he battles with the dilemma of who to trust; a quandary he equates to a scientific equation.
The musical opens with too soft a punch. The band, placed up in the gallery, lack the volume to prick up the ears. But one quickly realises that this is to compensate for the singers not using mics. Whether this is an artistic or financial decision is unclear, but it does lead to problems of projection. Much of the libretto is lost during the solo numbers, particularly when some of the melodies wander beyond the actors’ vocal range. This is not ‘legit’ musical theatre, so the inconsistent quality of the singing can be forgiven, and where technique is occasionally lacking it is certainly made up for by character. Dan Buckley, in fine voice as Norman, is believable as the wunderkind with a heart, while Siobhan Athwal’s love interest mixes a no-nonsense steeliness with a true-hearted empathy. Ken Christiansen is all cockney brass as the bulldog CEO, unaware that all around him are ready to pull the carpet from underneath him. Claire Marlowe stands out as the privileged, upper class Lady Cocksure, with more faces than the town clock, who is intent on bringing everybody down.
But nothing unexpected really happens; either in the comedy, the dialogue or the score. With the exception of a refreshingly surreal Tango and a Ska infused number the soundtrack is quite monotone. It is like the composers are handling the material with kid gloves. There is a rawness to the satire of the book that is unmatched by a slightly reticent, almost polite, delivery of the guitar-based numbers. A louder voice, greater dynamic variation and some brutal editing are needed to keep it afloat in the current swamp of new musicals. At present it feels adrift in its own deference.