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Posts Tagged ‘Mike Ockrent’

Almost twenty years ago, American writer Ken Ludwig (best known for Lend Me A Tenor) and British director Mike Ockrent had the bizarre idea of staging a ‘new’ Gershwin musical. Using Girl Crazy as their starting point they created a new book and added Gershwin songs from elsewhere. Not exactly a ‘jukebox’ musical, but close. They may well have inadvertently given us the best musical the Gershwin’s (n)ever wrote.

Bobby is a banker (there, I’ve said it!) who yearns to be a Broadway boy. To divert him from his attempts to join the Zangler Follies, his haridan of a mother sends him to the Wild West to foreclose on a theatre that has defaulted on its mortgage. Of course, he falls in love with both the theatre and the owner’s daughter and sends for the Follies girls (on their vacation) to stage a show with the local rednecks to rescue the theatre.  Cue lots of east coast  meets wild west culture clash and knowing jokes about how gambling will never catch on in Nevada.

Peter McKintosh has created a terrific set which starts with the neon lights of  Broadway but soon moves to the dusty streets and saloon bars of the old west; a few real horses tied up outside the saloon and you’d think you were there. Timothy Sheader’s staging and Stephen Mear’s choreography sparkle with ingenuity and wit and there’s a fine ensemble of hapless cowboys and pretty chorus girls. It’s packed full of Gershwin tunes, from solo gems like Someone to Watch Over Me, Embraceable You and They Can’t Take that Away From Me to big chorus numbers like the show-stopping I Got Rhythm, which closes the first act leaving you desperate for the second to start. The book is very funny and the drunken scene where the real Zangler and his imposter meet is a comic masterpiece.

Sean Palmer is terrific as Bobby and Clare Foster is delightful in her transition from tomboy to lovestruck girlfriend. David Burt and Harriet Thorpe give us great cameos as Zangler and Bobby’s mum. The band is as big and as brash as it should be when necessary, but plays tunes delicately when needs be.

This season, the OAT has gone from desert island crash site to Hogarthian London to Broadway / the Wild West and all three show have been hits. The new policy of a more varied repertoire is paying off and the space is proving it can just about stage anything. Now all they have to do is replace the caterers! Miss this at your peril.

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I think this was Stiles & Drew’s first show. It’s first production at the Tricycle Theatre, twenty years ago, was directed by Mike Ockrent no less and Cameron Macintosh was its godfather. I loved it, and amongst my fond memories is the appearance of a young Clive Rowe who’d impressed me in the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s end-of-year musical Girl Crazy – it may even have been his professional debut.

It still strikes me as an impressive debut musical, with catchy tunes from Stiles and witty lyrics from Drew. Based on Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories, it’s more about the characterisation of the animals than it is about the simple story.

In this production, it is mostly well sung, though the small band feels as if it’s in the room next door – well, it almost is, sitting behind a screen on a ‘shelf’ to the left of the stage. The performances too are mostly good – particularly by the three leads. Lee Greenaway is cute and charming as Elephant’s Child, Ian Knauer an authoritative presence as The Eldest Magician and I loved Lisa Baird’s feisty Glaswegian Kolokolo Bird.

The Tabard is a small stage for 11 actors; unfortunately designer Christopher Hone has made it even more difficult for them by over-designing a two-tier set which restricts movement and adds little. In addition, the costumes, though clever, fail to create the magical animal world.

So, a good show well performed but let down by the design and staging I’m afraid…..but worth a second look twenty years on.

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