A Gershwin musical we all need now
Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, London NW1
ON THE opening night of this wonderful feel-good show, London was under siege by rioting mobs. Not that the audience, sitting in the Open Air’s magical setting, was aware of it at the time.
But in retrospect, knowing that as this musical’s superbly delivered pleasures got underway — as the chorus girls twirled across the stage, and as the two romantic leads (New York’s Bobby and Dead Rock’s Polly delightfully played with innocence and sass by Sean Palmer and Clare Foster) shrugged off a rainy start and lit up the evening with an avalanche of Gershwin classics — knowing that during all this London burned, it is hard not to feel a little retrospective shame at the enjoyment felt while so much misery was being meted out elsewhere.
But then, trivial as it may seem in this context, when you think that Crazy For You is based on George and Ira Gershwin’s 1930s Depression-era morale booster, Girl Crazy, what better tonic for these times?
Ken Ludwig’s frothy story is about a banker who loves to dance and who falls head over his tapping heels for the girl whose theatre he is supposed to foreclose on but instead helps to save.
But although it is the perfect piece of nonsense on which to graft the Gershwins’ irresistible score, what counts just as much here is the creative team of director Tim Sheader and choreographer Stephen Mear, who once again prove that they are the most potent combination of musical talent currently at work in this country.
Under their direction, the songs Slap That Bass and I Got Rhythm become ecstatic celebrations of dance, melody and, well, rhythm. They are moments of musical ecstasy and almost match the rapture achieved by Sheader’s and Mear’s production of Hello Dolly! of a couple of years ago. Shamefully, no producer took that show to the West End.
This one is equally deserving. And the country probably needs it. ( Tel: 0844 826 4242)
Donmar Theatre, London WC2
ANY HOPE that, with Jude Law starring as a ship’s stoker, Rob Ashford’s production would rank alongside other starry revivals of Eugene O’Neill — Kevin Spacey’s unforgettable The Iceman Cometh or Jessica Lang’s harrowing Long Day’s Journey into Night — fades with the dawning realisation that this just is not a great play.
Like Shaw’s Mrs Warren, O’Neill’s Anna Christie reveals that prostitutes, you know, are people too — a lesson that had considerably more impact in the early 20th century than it does in the 21st.
Unlike Shaw, O’Neill opts for the altogether saltier setting of a sailors’ bar and then the coal barge on which lives ageing Swedish captain Chris (David Hayman) and his worldly-wise daughter Anna (Ruth Wilson), who before she turned up at the bar, he had not seen since she was five.
Chris lives in blissful ignorance of his daughter’s abusive childhood and the life of prostitution that resulted from his sending her away to be brought up on land. That history is inevitably revealed after Law’s shipwrecked Irish stoker, Mat, hauls himself out of a raging sea and onto the wooden deck of Chris’s and Anna’s barge. It is one hell of an entrance.
Naked from the waist up, Law’s muscular sea dog is all bravado and brawn. With an Irish brogue as broad as his shoulders he immediately woos Anna with tales of unbridled strength and confessions of undying love.
Ashford’s production is powerfully played. Law reveals the innate decency that lies within Mat’s thuggish exterior. And Wilson is also very fine, balancing a yearning for love and a dignified refusal to be unfairly judged.
But the truths revealed lack the devastating impact of O’Neill’s greater plays. There is the same sense here of people being trapped in their lives, but only by attitudes they could easily choose to throw overboard. ( Tel: 0844 871 7624)
They got rhythm: chorus girls twirl under the stars in Regent’s Park’s Open Air Theatre superb production