Review – Lady Be Good, Open Air Theatre, Regents Park

Saturday 21 July 2007

When the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park announced that it was to produce George & Ira Gershwin’s Lady Be Good two major questions immediately presented themselves to the West End Whingers:

  1. So soon after the remorseless un-stitching of the genre by The Drowsy Chaperone, would it be possible to get away with staging a frothy 1920s musical?
  2. What happened to the punctuation?

One of the more interesting answers to the first question is: “Phil will never know”.

Due presumably to some administrative mix up (as a result of which some poor assistant has probably been dismissed) Andrew was invited to attend the press night of Lady Be Good on Thursday as the guest of Mark ShentonThe Stage‘s blogger and theatre critic for the Sunday Express (Andrew – are you sure? is that still going? – Phil).

Anyway, the over-looked Phil was – as you can imagine – literally spitting feathers with jealousy as the evening approached. Determined to scupper things the silly old witch spent the whole day doing his rain dance and although his powers may be great, his timing was way off, as most of the country could testify the following morning.

So the evening remained dry and Mr Shenton shouldered his task with good grace – although he understandably stopped short of admitting to anyone who the snappily dressed man swaying alongside him really was. And his fellow critics – Ian Shuttleworth, Rhoda Koenig, Michael Coveney and Georgina Brown – showed immense sensitivity to his plight by not asking.

Andrew, by turn, was horrified to discover that Mr Shenton is actually a teetotaller and so would therefore have very little in common with him. But he consoled himself with the fact that for once he would be able to enjoy an evening at the theatre without his companion throwing up in the nearest flower bed or litter bin at some point.

And enjoy it he did. Immensely.

His attention was secured from the very opening . The set – a terrifically fun confection made up of giant musical instruments – featured a staircase formed of the piano’s keyboard and a drum set.

Down these the players made their entrance singing “Fascinatin’ Rhythm”, steppin’ very tentatively indeed and payin’ special attention to their feet at about High A at which point a very tricky manoeuvre required them to make it onto the highest of the drums without actually tumblin’ to the floor and breakin’ a limb.

They all made it and the audience exhaled a huge sigh of relief and from then on it was something of a masterpiece in musical comedy staging. Really, it couldn’t have been better. Director Ian Talbot (whose 20th and final year this is as Artistic Director of the Open Air Theatre) plays it straight down the line with energy and pace and no apologies for the material.

Actually, the book (Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson) isn’t bad although the story, of course, is ludicrous:

Dick and Susie Trevor are penniless siblings evicted from their Rhode Island mansion. Dick is determined to marry the wealthy Josephine Vanderwater in order to return to solvency but Susie is equally determined to save Dick from a loveless marriage by posing as a Spanish widow in order to claim a substantial inheritance.

But the whole thing is played with such panache that it’s irresistible. The wit and charm of it all is enough to keep the book afloat even when things get bogged down in the over-stretched “comedy” moments.

Indeed, Andrew didn’t nod off once. In fact, much to the disdain of the various members of the Critics Circle, he applauded every song enthusiastically.

It was just one sense in which The Drowsy Chaperone added, rather than subtracted, from the experience. Remember the Man In Chair’s opening preamble?

You know there was a time when people sat in darkened theatres and thought to themselves, ‘What have George and Ira got for me tonight?’ Or ‘Can Cole Porter pull it off again?’ Now it’s, ‘Please, Elton John, must we continue this charade?’

Well, for these open air nights, George and Ira have provided the utterly splendid “Fascinatin’ Rhythm”, “Oh Lady, Be Good”, “The Half Of It, Dearie, Blues”, “I’d Rather Charleston”, “Just Another Rhumba” and “Little Jazz Bird”.

Thankfully, the singing’s good too and the Astaire-ish choreography by Bill Deamer (who did Follies in Concert) is – ironically – like a breath of fresh air after the relentless assault on West End musicals by the likes of Matthew Bourne and Javier de Frutos. Not a bed or a stepladder in sight.

And here’s something else you rarely get in the West End these days – you could make out the words the chorus was singing.

The cast is terrific. Chris Ellis-Stanton sings and dances his way effortlessly through it all as though he was born that way. Hattie Ladbury as Josephine Vanderwater (c.f. Janet Van De Graaf in Drowsy. Spooky!) is the new – and more glamorous – Mary Wickes.

Kate Nelson (right, with Chris Ellis-Stanton) as Susie Trevor displays fine musical comedy skills, particularly in the spoof “Just Another Rumba” (another Drowsy moment: the “Mexican” elements. Very Adolpho – the man of 1,000 accents; every one of them offensive).

Singing and dancing (together!) apart, perhaps the most onerous task falls on Mr Bonnie Langford (Paul Grunert) whose role as likable crooked lawyer Watty Watkins requires him to carry most of the over-long panto/comedy sequences. This he does with energy and fine comic skill.

All in all, it was a superb evening for Andrew, not least due to the excellent Press seats (Row D) and the excellent free Press wine and Press chocolate brownies in the interval. How the other half lives!

In a rare moment of compassion, Andrew stuffed several of the Press brownies into his pocket to give to Phil at a later date. Sadly, these days Phil can not consume much in the way of solids but Andrew figured he could probably mash them up with some water or more probably with something stronger.

The glasses of Press red wine were rather more difficult to take and – not for the first time – Andrew regretted his lack of foresight in not taking a hip flask along with him.

Those Punctuation Issues in Full

When it comes to punctuation, Andrew makes Lynne Truss look like a Roman Road Market stall holder. So, to clarify:

1. The Case of the Missing Apostrophe

It’s “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” not “Fascinating Rhythm”. Presumably the current print run of the programme will be burned and a correct version issued for the remainder of the run.

2. The Case of the Missing Comma

Shouldn’t it be Lady, Be Good rather than Lady Be Good?

It certainly was in December 1924 when it opened on Broadway starring Fred and Adele Astaire (who also appeared in the London transfer two years later but presumably – pre-figuring Drowsy moment – with less laughter from the audience).

Anyway, the poster below clearly shows a comma in the title. And an exclamation mark, come to that.

By 1941, what with there being a war on and commas being in short supply, the film version (right) tightened its belt and made do without one.

Andrew’s only regret of the evening was that Mr Talbot overlooked the opportunity to revive this show in its original punctuated glory.

5 Responses to “Review – Lady Be Good, Open Air Theatre, Regents Park”

  1. Mark I Says:

    Is there a new thesis in the offing?

    The Use and Abuse of Punctuation in Theatrical Promotional Material, anyone?

  2. Ted Kraus Says:

    Please for the world’s brownie-theatre lovers —ask a press agent friend which London bakery makes the brownies— or does Andrew Lloyd Webber bake them at home.

  3. univeristyofworry Says:

    consorting with The Stage? Are you going mainstream? Shurely not?

  4. Sean Says:

    Yes, those critics really are a friendly lot!

    Where are you getting the assertion that ‘Fascinating Rhythm’, should be ‘Fascinatin’ Rhythm’ from?

    My review:

    http://www.seaninthestalls.blogspot.com

  5. Kevin Gauntlett Says:

    Does anyone realise that “Hello Dolly” should infact be (as in the original) “Hello, Dolly!” ….. another case of the missing comma!


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