Beyond Oklahoma

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at The New Alexandra Theatre 5 May 2015

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“Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,” Shakespeare wrote.  He clearly lived in an age before the conventions of the stage musical had been firmed up.  I should say at the outset that musicals and I have a bit of a history. The first record player in our family was my older cousin’s red and white Dansette, and her first records were South Pacific and The King and I.  Prolonged exposure to these relentlessly syrupy confections over a number of weeks eventually led to bouts of severe nausea whenever the needle was dropped on track one.

Things didn’t improve much when we got our own stereo radiogram.  My Dad, a man of otherwise impeccable taste, used to play the soundtrack to Oklahoma! every Sunday morning just after he’d listened to The Archers omnibus.  He didn’t own any other albums of show tunes, and none of us ever really understood his fascination with this one, but nevertheless I walked to school most Monday mornings humming “Surrey with a Fringe on Top” or, more bizarrely, “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No”.  No wonder I’ve viewed the genre with suspicion ever since.

Having said that, for someone who doesn’t really appreciate the appeal of musical theatre, I seem to have spent a lot of time watching it over the past few weeks.

And after you’ve seen a few, you become aware that the modern variants follow a fairly straightforward recipe.  First, take a successful movie, preferably a comedy or a romance.  According to taste (or lack of it), you could use one about a couple of incompetently fraudulent Broadway producers, or one about a haunted potter’s wheel or one about a repressed teenager who finds herself through learning to dance at a swanky summer resort.  Carefully remove all subtlety and nuance from the plot, then mix in a dozen or so anodyne songs. Add as many dancers and costume changes as you can afford and strain for two hours.

Not a fan, you see.  My main issue is that modern musicals are just not very, well, musical.  All those old Rodgers and Hammerstein warhorses, beloved of Amateur Operatic societies everywhere, had proper songs in them, songs that had a life outside the context of the show they belonged to.  So I’d heard “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Shall We Dance?” a long time  before I was subjected to immersion therapy at my cousin’s, and “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” was just what my mother sang when the sun was shining and not part of some worryingly dark obsession of my father’s.  Maybe it was because radio was so unexciting then -we are talking of a time just before The Beatles arrived and changed everything for good – but “Seventy-six Trombones” and “Secret Love” were woven into the fabric of my early childhood as much as sherbet fountains and Thunderbirds, and I never had an inkling that they had been extracted from a narrative of their own.

Now, however, the songs are almost instantly forgettable.  They serve the plot well enough while you’re in the theatre, but you don’t ever expect to hear them again as you go about your daily life.  There is a school of thought that says that there are no good tunes in Broadway musicals any more because they’re all in Disney cartoons, and if you’ve ever seen the late Robin Williams’ brilliant turn as the Genie in Aladdin, belting out “Friend Like Me”, or “Under the Sea” sung by Samuel E Wright as Sebastian in The Little Mermaid, you may well have some sympathy with that view.

In the interests of fairness and objectivity, I am, however, prepared to make an exception and accept that, in the right hands, an evening of musical theatre can be a thoroughly entertaining night out.

A prime example is the current touring production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Alex.  I won’t bore you with any thoughts on the 1988 Michael Caine/Steve Martin movie on which this show is based; let’s judge this one on its own merits.  And there are plenty of them.  An Art Deco gauze welcomes you to Beaumont-sur-mer and sets the tone for an attractive set where 5-star hotel rooms, secluded villas, moonlit balconies, Pullman carriages and topiary gardens can all be suggested via artfully contrived sliding panels and trucks.  From the off, the band punches well above its collective weight and the stage is full of gorgeously-costumed dancers whose exuberance adds depth and impact to the big numbers.

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The principal cast is similarly accomplished.  The two male leads, Michael Praed and Noel Sulllivan as a pair of competing con-men, complement each other perfectly.  Praed’s slightly aloof but always elegantly-suited Laurence and Sullivan’s brash upstart Freddy play off each other skilfully, especially in the sequence where Freddy pretends to be Laurence’s socially-challenged brother Ruprecht in order to dissuade an over-eager would-be fiancee. Before you can say “set-up”, their applecart is, however, well and truly over-turned by the arrival of soap heiress Christine Colgate, played by Carley Stenson in a beautifully-judged performance which is by turns demure, wide-eyed and witless, and the rest of the show becomes a madcap competition as each man tries to get the girl and her money by assuming an outlandish disguise.

Special mention must also be made of Mark Benton as local Chief of Police Andre Thibault, not because he is a hitherto undiscovered star of musical theatre – you’d be looking at him a long time before you thought of Fred Astaire – but because he is a physical embodiment of the joy that is at the heart of this production.  His scenes with Geraldine Fitzgerald as socialite Muriel Eubanks are delightful vignettes of late-flowering passion.  Yes, he’s relaxed and confident, with an enviable comic timing, but he is also eminently likeable, and that’s one quality you can’t fake, no matter where you’ve trained.

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So, a big colourful stage full of beautifully-clothed and talented people who make us smile, laugh out loud and applaud wildly.  It’s a bit like a marshmallow: pink and fluffy all the way through with a sweetness that makes you want more.  It isn’t going to change your life but it’s going to make you feel good for a couple of hours, so what’s not to like?  I came out humming the closing “Dirty Rotten Number” and kept it going almost all the way home, but, sad to relate, I couldn’t remember it the next day.

Notwithstanding, maybe I should look beyond Oklahoma! more often.   I’ll keep you posted.

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