Review – Crazy For You, Festival Theatre Chichester, 23rd July 2022

Crazy For YouJust as the ecstatic applause at the end of the first act was dying down, Mrs Chrisparkle turned to me and said This is the kind of show you usually hate – and she’s totally right. I like my musicals to be meaty. To pose problems. To issue challenges. To delve deep into the heart of humanity and winkle out nuggets of truth so that you come out of the show a different person from the one you went in as. Crazy For You does absolutely none of those things. And it is, quite simply, a glorious delight from start to finish.

Bobby and the GirlsDirector and choreographer Susan Stroman, who had worked on the original 1992 production, was already making plans for a revival of this Gershwin extravaganza way back when none of us had ever heard of Covid. Then, with all the theatres shut, and not much hope for the future on the horizon, it naturally retreated to her back-burner. That is, until the fickle hand of fate prompted Chichester Artistic Director Daniel Evans to ask her if she would bring the show back to Sussex. And, with a superbly talented cast and production team to bring it to reality, this early juke-box musical (it feels like it should be from the 1930s but it isn’t) is gracing the stage of the Festival Theatre, and sending its audiences on their merry way home with a spring in their step and pretend tap-shoes on their feet.

Irene, Bobby and LottieAs I indicated at the beginning, the plot is very simple. Theatre-mad Bobby Child is sent by his bank-owning Mamma to Nevada to foreclose the mortgage on an inactive little theatre way out west. But it’s not in Bobby’s nature to ever close a theatre down, especially when it’s owned by the father of the only girl in the town, the feisty Polly, with whom Bobby instantly falls head over heels in love. The rest of the show revolves around his attempts to both woo Polly and also impersonate Bela Zangler, the impresario, in a last-ditch attempt to stage a show so that audiences can return and the theatre can become financially solvent again. But I wouldn’t worry too much about the plot. It’s really not important.

Bobby and the BoysThe show takes Gershwin songs from a number of their Greatest Hits, including I Got Rhythm, Someone to Watch Over Me, They Can’t Take That Away from Me, Nice Work if You can Get it, Embraceable You, and plenty of other showtoonz. Musical Director Alan Williams leads a fantastic 16-person band – which is a pretty big quantity of musicians – and you can instantly tell how full and rich the sound is. Before any action takes place, during the overture, Ken Billington’s lighting design puts the shimmering front curtain through its paces with a range of warm exciting colours, preparing you for the visual feast to follow. All these visual and audio cues really gee you up in expectation of a great show, so the audience is truly buzzing even before the performance truly gets underway.

Slap That BassAnd it’s a show of sheer enjoyment. Ken Ludwig’s book is full of fun; silly jokes that hit perfectly, rewarding routines, such as the two Zanglers mimicking each other in a mirror, cartoon effects like the tweety-bird sound when a character hits their head, and there’s an early contender for the Best Performance in a Musical by a piece of tumbleweed award, as the aforementioned stage contraption merrily makes its way across the Deadrock landscape. Each piece of comic business, each interactive musical moment, each comic characterisation goes towards making the show a thing of total bliss. And, to be fair, yes, the substance of the show is lightweight and fluffy and doesn’t make you think again about the Human Condition. However, unlike some juke-box musicals, the structure actually works, and the choice of songs does largely make sense, with many of them either forwarding the plot or giving us a further insight into the singer’s character. And there are plenty of reputable musicals that don’t achieve that.

The FodorsAs you would expect from Susan Stroman, the choreography throughout is dynamic, thrilling, inventive, comical, and passionate, and makes big demands on the star performers who rise to the occasion superbly. Chichester had already taken Charlie Stemp to its heart after his rise to fame and fortune in Rachel Kavanaugh’s Half a Sixpence six years ago, so it was no surprise that he received a star round of applause on his typically ebullient first entry on stage. Mr Stemp is a master (if not THE master) of song-and-dance on stage, and responds to Ms Stroman’s demands with all the brilliance you’d expect. But he is more than matched by a fantastic performance by Carly Anderson as Polly, who has a dream of a voice and wonderful comic timing, and together they are pretty much matchless.

PollyThere’s also an impressive physical comedy performance from Tom Edden (you’d expect nothing less from him) as Bela Zangler, Merryl Ansah is a delightfully tricky Irene, with a terrific surprise up her sleeve that comes later in the second act; Gay Soper is wonderful as Bobby’s frosty mother Lottie, and there’s excellent support from Mathew Craig as the grumpy Lank Hawkins, Don Gallagher as Polly’s living-in-the-past father Everett, and from Adrian Grove and Jacquie Dubois as the frightfully British Fodors, unexpectedly arrived to review Lank’s Hotel. The boys and girls of the ensemble are also fantastic, Belawith many hilarious and endearing vignettes, as well as brilliant singing and dancing skills. Sadie-Jean Shirley, Kate Parr, Mark Akinfolarin and Joshua Nkemdilim in particular stand out, but everyone pours their hearts and souls into delivering a magnificent performance.

Like The Unfriend a few weeks ago, Chichester have come up with another tremendous triumph that is totally West End-ready. We went as part of a group of eight and every single one of us adored every minute of it. That’s got to be a good sign!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Paradise Found, Menier Chocolate Factory, June 6th

We so nearly didn’t bother to go. It was that close. Virtually every review had panned this as being so dead a duck, so stuffed a turkey that it really didn’t seem worth the train fare. As it happened, planned engineering works meant that we drove into London instead, and I’m glad we made the effort. Paradise FoundHowever, it was nothing like the effort that this star-studded Broadway cast gave in an attempt to inject life into this piece. And possibly the most invigorating thing to come out of the show is the subsequent attempts to work out where it goes wrong, why, how, and can it be rescued in any way.

For, make no mistake, 99% of reviewers can’t be wrong. And largely they’re not. This is a very unsuccessful show. Somehow some way it really DOES NOT WORK. And yet – we were not bored; I didn’t hate it; I found it constantly intriguing.

Harold Prince and Susan StromanI think much is to do with expectation. It’s at the Menier (tick); it has the aforementioned star-studded Broadway cast (tick); it’s produced directed and choreographed by Prince & Stroman (tick tick). The poster/programme design suggest a rather elegant show, where sex is a major element but done with refinement and class – more Sondheim than Raymond Revuebar. It feels like it should be erudite, witty, sophisticated. But in reality it is none of these. At best it is an utterly preposterous tale, full of completely unbelievable events and coincidences. The Shah hasn’t been able to pleasure a wife for over 100 days. He sees the Empress and Bingo. Yet when the Empress is replaced with a stand-in, he also gets a bingo. How likely is that? 15 years later all four people sat at a café are surprised that they know one another. Yet the waiter has never heard of the “Bat” club, which united their pasts. Ridiculous.

Therefore my advice for what it’s worth is to scrap the false veneer of sophistication and instead recognise it as a piece of the total unadulterated Camp (with the most Capital of C’s). Replace the Pinter with Panto. It’s full of what ought to be hilarious moments – they should be completely indulged rather than embarrassingly touched on. The Shah (John McMartin), at first incapable of getting it up, and then more than capable, should be played with vulgar grotesqueness. The Soap Manufacturer’s wife’s lover and husband being sent into the closet to hide from yet another lover should have had the breathless pace of a 60s Brian Rix farce, rather than what was a remarkably flat scene. Laughter in the audience was sparse at the best of times. Often just one person would find something funny and laugh alone. When the Madame summoned the whore impersonating the Empress, she used the whistle which she customarily used to summon all the whores for a potential client. I laughed. I was the only one.

And then there is the difficulty of the Chief Eunuch. The character grimaces around the stage like a miserable good fairy, mealy-mouthed and bland. When he comes back after fifteen years he is a businessman with an unfortunate hairstyle reminiscent of Radovan Karadzic. Having been a softly spoken peacemaker in the first half, his loud shouting at Frau Matzner in the second is completely unbelievable. Mandy Patinkin Four times, I think, he shouted, each time a bit louder to show that he was more serious about his shouting; however, with a complete lack of conviction. He slows down the action and does not contribute sufficiently to the comedy that is both on and beneath the surface. This is the first time I have seen Mandy Patinkin live on stage. He has great charisma and a fine stage presence. Whether or not it is to underline the fact that he is playing a eunuch, much of his singing is in a strange strangulated falsetto which I’m afraid is actually embarrassing to witness. Regrettably, I think this would be a much more successful production if the character of the Eunuch was entirely removed from the plot.

The story does have some interesting points to make, like what happens when you love a whore and are jealous of the apparent pleasure she gets from a different customer; and the meteoric rise of wealth and station in some individuals at the expense of the decline and fall of others. But the production labours to tell these tales and loses sight of the essential flippancy of the material. Shuler Hensley as the Baron, when drunk and violent, is far too convincing in his portrayal of life at its lowest ebb to fit in with silliness of the rest of the show. When the story is wrapped up with (and I’m paraphrasing here) “all they needed was a shot in the arm to get their romance going again”, which finally provoked a true audience reaction, a huge groan, surely this shows that the material needs a totally different, much less respectful approach. This is not Chekhov.

A few other notes:

Some have said the music, which is a series of Strauss waltzes and marches, is too relentless and unvaried so that it becomes a headache. I didn’t find that. In fact I thought the juxtaposition of the socially acceptable and decent music with ribald lyrics worked very well.

The stage though is too cramped, it should have been extended wider. With lots of people in a tiny area, no wonder the choreography was minimalist. Unbelievably they didn’t seem to observe Lesson One in the Ladybird book of Directing and block it properly. There were many key moments where I couldn’t see what was going on because a member of the cast was in the way. Did the Shah get an erection? What did the Baron do with that gun?

We’re now a good halfway into the run, yet the cast still seemed quite clumsy with props and scenery. The Shah knocked his head on the chandelier on the way up to scoring with the pretend Empress; the Soap Manufacturer’s wife’s soldier lover’s helmet bounced noisily all over the stage when she knocked it off the sofa (I’m presuming this was a mistake – don’t tell me it was a deliberate piece of comic business, please…) ; she also thumped her hand on the ornate dressing table mirror whilst applying her lotions; and in the finale the singing Eunuch walked backwards without watching where he was going and trampled over another cast member seated on the floor.

I am wondering though, whether they have been tweaking it to improve it since it opened, because my overall impression is that it was not as bad as I expected. Interval applause was barely existent, but at curtain call it was quite generous. It could have been from a number of American tourists loyally supporting their away team. But I contributed to it too, because despite all these criticisms, I did actually enjoy it. How bizarre is that? From my front row vantage point I could clearly see some surprised delight as a reaction to the applause exchanged in the glances between George Lee Andrews (Grand Vizier) and Pamela Winslow Kashani (Maid/Whore) (no sentimentality in the characters names there) and I think I lip-read something like “well that didn’t go too badly at all!”

I honestly think with a complete re-approach, some re-writing and other tweaking, this could, just, be rescued.

Oh, and we liked it much, much more than Talent.