Creator Adam Meggido directs his own work in this new musical written with Roy Smiles. Set in 1952, Burlesque is the tale of mediocre comic Johnny Reno, blacklisted by witch-hunters of the McCarthy movement in anti-communist America. He needs to clear his name, fix his love-life and clean up his act. Added to the mix is Freddie Le Roy, broke proprietor of the Palace Theatre, a faded strip and comedy joint, together with a succession of showgirls who don’t stay long, probably scared off by the owner’s lustful antics. All this is overseen by matriarch-like Lula Malakah, earnest and wholesomely played by Buster Skeggs.
With over 20 musical numbers to choose from, Burlesque offers variety aplenty. Whenever a book features love tangles, ballads are sure to feature. Alicia Davies does well in this regard, taking the role of dancer Honey Hogan. She is pregnant to Johnny Reno and powerfully delivers ‘New World’ and ‘Love Never Plays Fair’ the latter especially so. ‘You Change Your Mind’ beautifully sung by graduate Sinead Mathias with clarity and conviction. Buster Skeggs tackles her patter song ‘Time To Give Up Girls’ with great timing and gusto, making the most of wonderfully descriptive lyrics. Also lyrically rich is the enjoyable ‘Loves The Same All Over The World’. This is a musical in which the solo numbers set the standard. A pity therefore that the ensemble arrangements don’t match those high levels of attainment. Closing songs to both acts simply fail to rouse; a fault of the writers rather than cast, I suspect. The show’s Finale is disappointing in that it ends before it barely gets started, while Act 1 concludes with ditty ‘Luck Of The Irish’ which Chris Holland doesn’t quite pull off, sacrificing diction for accent. The number needs to be slowed down so that the undoubtedly humorous lyrics can be deciphered and appreciated by the audience. Contrastingly, slapstick number ‘Leave ‘em Laughing’ earlier in the show is delivered at perfect pitch by Holland, this time in duet with Jon-Paul Hevey as the comic lead, Reno. Dressed in a plaid suit and impressive fifties quiff, he reminds me of a younger version of camp comic Ted Bovis from TV’s Hi De Hi of the same era.
FBI investigator Bill Henry seeks to convict Reno who claims to have been mistakenly labelled a ‘Commie’ rather than comic! Alex Bartram might fare better taking a darker approach to his portrayal than merely offering a sour demeanour and dead-pan manner.
A three piece band provides polished accompaniment, the piece being musically directed by Duncan Walsh-Atkins and supervised by Michael Bradley. Sound levels were more or less spot on at this preview performance, apart from Victoria Serra’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, a saucy, titillating act two opener, but I’m confident that will be corrected.
The book is interesting and tidy, while Martin Thomas’ costumes and set neatly fit this production, a proscenium-arched stage, lavishly curtained, opening to reveal a detailed dressing room area. The girls are indeed a treat for discerning gentlemen and, no doubt, preying impresario Freddie Le Roy who is played well by Linal Haft.
With tightening of both choreography and ensemble numbers as the production matures, Burlesque has potential to please. However, the lack of a decent finale is disappointing and needs revisiting.
A promising and well-written new musical, which definitely has legs.
- - - - - - - - - -
9th Nov - 18th Dec 2011
Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1.