George and Ira Gershwin’s Crazy for You: Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production directed by Timothy Sheader, Novello Theatre,London, 19.10.2011. (JPr)
The genesis of Crazy for You in the early 1990s cannot be clearer and it was deemed the perfect antidote to the invasion of Broadway by recent very successful European musicals, such as Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera. Mark Shenton explains in his essay in the programme: “As New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote in the opening sentence of his review of Crazy for You, published the day after it opened on 19 February 1992: ‘When future historians try to find the exact moment of which Broadway finally rose up to grab the musical back from the British, they may just conclude that the revolution began last night. The shot was fired at the Schubert Theatre, where a riotously entertaining show … uncorked the American musical’s blend of music, laughter, dancing, sentiment and showmanship with a freshness and confidence rarely seen during the Cats decade.” I could almost end this review here as this just about tells you everything you need to know about this uplifting, thoroughly entertaining evening that has transferred after its acclaimed summer season at Regent’s Park to the intimate Novello Theatre.
This was less, as originally billed, a new Gershwin musical than a reworking by Ken Ludwig and its original director, Mike Ockrent, of the 1930 Girl Crazy with a new book and songs added in from George and Ira’s back catalogue. If not exactly the first ‘jukebox musical’ it seems mighty close to it. It is set during the Great Depression, was conceived during another economic downturn and reappears during yet another one. It is marvellous how the show, which was seen at the time as the American musicals’ saviour, is now revived so gloriously by such a wonderful British institution such as the Open Air Theatre. It is not trying to send any sort of message to its contemporary audience and if this mindless, joyously optimistic, old-fashioned entertainment says anything at all it is that life is what you make of it, and whatever else befalls you … smile!
Utilising a rotating stage with terrific effect Peter McKintosh’s set takes us back and forth from a neon-lit Broadway and backstage at the Zangler Follies to a dusty street in a ramshackled town of the old American West miles from nearest railroad, with a hotel and saloon, as well as, a former theatre that is now the US Post Office. I half expected John Wayne to ride into town at any minute. It all provides the perfect backdrop for compliant, squealing, pretty chorus girls and some down-on-their luck, kind-hearted, cowboys. Timothy Sheader’s witty staging is almost breathless and there is some always inventive and sparkling choreography from Stephen Mear that owes as much to Susan Stroman’s original Broadway routines as it does to any of a number of Gene Kelly musical numbers, especially when Sean Palmer’s Bobby Child is involved.
It is a daft plot that somewhat reminiscent of Ken Ludwig’s earlier play that was also turned into a musical and recently reviewed by me (link here please. Handsome banker Bobby Childs is squirming out of marrying the domineering Irene in an almost George Clooney-like way and works for an equally overbearing mother, he longs for a showbiz life. Bobby fails to impress New York impresario Bela Zangler (caricatured here as a heavily accented Hungarian Jew) when his tap routine ends with him standing on his toe. His mother insists that he must go to Deadrock, Nevada to foreclose on a rundown theatre.
On arrival, Bobby instantly falls for the theatre owner’s daughter, Polly, ‘the only woman within 50 miles of Deadrock’. He resolves to impersonate Zangler, gather together the chorus girls who are on a break between shows, put on a Broadway extravaganza in the crumbling playhouse and with the money raised, pay off the debt and win the girl. With just a hint of Carry On Cowboy there is much fun made out of the east coast meets wild west culture clash and some splendid asides such as how gambling will never catch on in Nevada. Of course this being musical theatre everything that can go wrong will so do. There is the usual use of mistaken identity; the scene where the real Zangler and the imposter, who are both drunk, meet is a comic masterpiece, and Polly is initially more in love with Bobby-as-Bella than when himself. There is also much slapstick and farcical too-ing and fro-ing but true love wins out in the end in a typical rumbustious ending.
The second half sags a little with the unnecessary introduction of two English tourists and the totally unnecessary ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ but in general it all moves winningly along on with often-familiar Gershwin tunes such as ‘K-ra-zy for You’, ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’, ‘Slap That Bass’, ‘Embraceable You’, ‘Naughty Baby’ and ‘They Can’t Take that Away from Me’. The wonderful show-stopping ‘I Got Rhythm’ ends Act I with such high-kicking energy that everyone is desperate for the second half to begin as soon as possible.
Sean Palmer flashes a toothy grin and is perfectly charming as Bobby and Clare Foster spends much of her time in dungarees as the tomboyish Polly and is totally engaging and charismatic throughout. David Burt as the real impresario Bela Zangler was as over-the-top as he is an irresistible tour-de-force. Harriet Thorpe gives a great Margaret Dumont cameo as Bobby’s mother and Kim Metcalf was splendid as the spiky fiancée, Irene, who – in a rather unwritten role – spars with the local saloon owner (the splendid Michael McKell) before melting for the charms. The small band under musical director Stephen Ridley works wonders.
Most of all it is just an exuberant ensemble show of the highest class and boasts the best looking line-up of chorus girls I have seen on a West Endstage. Who could ask for anything more? Certainly not me! Preposterous … certainly, unmissable … definitely!