United Kingdom Irving Berlin, Top Hat: Charlotte Gooch, Alan Burkitt & Company / Jae Alexander (conductor), Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 7.10.2014 (SRT)
Jerry Travers – Alan Burkitt
Dale Tremont – Charlotte Gooch
Horace Hardwick – Clive Hayward
Madge Hardwick – Rebecca Thornhill
Alberto Beddini – Sebastien Torkia
Bates – John Conroy
Director – Matthew White
Choreographer – Bill Deamer
Set design – Hildegard Bechtler
The screen-to-stage musical (i.e. stage shows that started life as films) has become something of a phenomenon recently. Shows like The Lion King, Singin’ in the Rain and White Christmas have been cleaning up at the box office, partly, I suspect, because the job of the publicity and promotion has already been done for them, often as long ago as the 1930s. Top Hat has been a stage hit since it opened in the West End in 2010 and, having closed in London in 2013, it now embarks on a UK tour.
The audience in the Edinburgh Festival Theatre adored it, and that must partly be because so much of it is already familiar. More importantly, though, it contains some of Irving Berlin’s best loved songs, and you’re repeatedly reminded what a great songsmith he was by numbers like Puttin’ on the Ritz, Cheek to Cheek or Isn’t this a lovely day to be caught in the rain. As a whole they’re a lot more engaging than the songs in White Christmas, which left me strangely cold: he pulls these tunes out of his top drawer.
Equally, though, a show like this gains a huge chunk of its appeal from the nostalgia factor. It evokes the 1930s effortlessly, not only through its costumes and sets but also through its sound world, all chintzy percussion and warbling saxophones. That’s not necessarily a criticism, as it can have the appeal of slipping into a familiar pair of slippers. The dialogue isn’t exactly razor sharp, though, and some of the jokes are as cheesy as a Stilton factory. More seriously, I found the second half much too long: the central dramatic device of mistaken identity outstayed its welcome, and the whole sequence of the marriage to the fashion designer I found very tiresome. Judicious cutting was in order here, and that’s one of the problems of adapting a film as your starting point.
However, there is a huge amount to enjoy. Charlotte Gooch was the whole package as Dale, an excellent dancer as well as a very good singer, and great looking into the bargain. Alan Burkitt’s dancing shoes were a greater asset than his singing voice, but you can forgive a lot when he moves so effortlessly. Clive Hayward and Rebecca Thornhill were effective contrasts as the comic foils, and Sebastien Torkia camped it up uproariously as Beddini, even if I found the joke rather wearing in its working out. Jae Alexander led the band with style, and the chorus numbers were very effective.
Almost as importantly, the visual appeal of the show carries real wow factor, spearheaded by Hildegard Bechtler’s Art Deco sets and the ease with which one scene glides into another. The choreography is a special draw, too, very impressive in the big ensemble numbers (particularly the one that ends the first act), but delicately worked for the individual performances, and beautifully poetic for Heaven, the climax of the show.
Top Hat is at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre until Saturday 18th October and is on tour nationwide until July 2015. For full details click here.