Park Avenue


Lillian Baylis Studio Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, Sunday 13 April 2008


Review by Emma Shane

© April 2008


Despite the Discovering Lost Musicals Charitable TrustTM having lost one of its staunchest background supports (Dick Vosburgh) last year, Ian Marshall-Fisher does it again! A well cast production of an amusing undiscovered musical comedy. As usual the afternoon’s entertainment starts with the producer/director’s introduction, during which he plugs the next show in the series (this is to be Sail Away, written for Elaine Stritch). Cast already on-stage, but none who would attempt any upstaging. Ian Marshall-Fisher sets the scene, explaining the show probably got lost through having been written during the “devil may care” period but not put on until afterwards.


On to the show, the cast includes a number of regular members of ‘The Gang’, such as Peter Gale, several more who seem to be becoming regulars. such as: Elizabeth Counsell, Valerie Cutko, David Firth, and, David O’Brien; along with just one of the ‘magic quintet’ (most Lost MusicalsTM do manage at least one member or another of that quintet), on this occasion James Vaughan. All mixing well with several newcomers (well new to performing in Lost MusicalsTM).


Tomorrow Is The Time, sung by Anatt Bass and the women kicks off the show, in splendid style, complete with a quote from Gilbert & Sullivan, a reminder of what an appreciation lyricist Ira Gershwin had for G&S. New team-member, Stephen Carlile as Ned enters, and with Helen Anker’s Madge duets For The Life Of Me, a sweet love song. Funnily enough just before launching into it, Mr Carlile had a strange look on his face that was extraordinarily reminiscent of the expression he wore before launching into Sounds Familiar in Matthew Strachen’s musical Next Door’s Baby, at The Orange Tree a few months ago. Ned and Madge are to be married, by a Bishop the following day.


Enter leading lady Elizabeth Counsell as Sybil (Madge’s mother). This is one of those musicals where the moment the Leading Lady makes her first entrance, one immediately knows this is the Leading Lady, at least if the said actress has a strong enough presence to carry the moment off properly, as Elizabeth Counsell certainly does.  Sybil introduces current Husband, Ogden played by David Firth, and then Husbands three and two and their current wives, played by John Rawnsley, Terence Bayler, Andrea Miller, and, Valerie Cutko respectively. Thereby bringing about the suggestion that all three stepfathers might try to walk Madge down the aisle. How shades of Sophie’s Under Attack nightmare in Mamma Mia can you get? Yet this was over fifty years earlier!


Completing the group, Madge’s Father, Richard Nelson and current wife Betty, played by James Vaughan, and, Nuala Willis respectively; with Madge’s father angrily walking into a croquet hoop and thus rubbing his shin. Everyone else departs, leaving Sybil and her four husbands to sing about their relationships The Due Was On The Rose. All four men turn out to be excellent singers, and neat movers, yet it is Elizabeth Counsell who quite rightly leads the cast on this splendid number, about knowing when to end a relationship, a little premature perhaps, but hey that’s the kind of characters Sybil and co are, in some ways quite honest. Perhaps this show was rather ahead of its time, or at least in the wrong time.


Just to give some balance, a trio for the other three wives, Don’t Be A Woman If You Can. This is a fast moving hilarious comedy number, which needs putting across effectively. It’s just perfect for Valerie Cutko’s vocal talents, and for that matter Andrea Miller. Both, while capable of leading shows if they have to, are at their best when being very strong supporting plays, not in the background by any means, having parts that are big enough to give them scope to make something of them, but free of the responsibilities of carrying a show. Their roles this afternoon suit them tremendously well. This song is a fine one for them. Nuala Willis seems the least easy of the trio, at least in this number, vocally she appears a trifle ill at ease. By no means bad, but not as well suited to the number as the other two.


Mr Meachem, a lawyer, played by a reliable Lost MusicalsTM old hand, Peter Gale, calls on Sybil, to discuss some “waterfront property”, she is planning on divorcing again (to marry Freddie Coleman), her usual lawyer is busy, hence Mr Meachem who usually deals in marriages rather than unmarriages is handling the case. They are interrupted at intervals by several of the others, who will be wanting to see him later. Mr Meachem suggests Sweet Nevada would be a good place for the case to be heard in. Both sing like the accomplished professionals that they are, though the song is pleasant but not particularly memorable.


Meanwhile Ned worries that with Madge’s family background she won’t take marriage seriously as being for life, she says she thinks her parents are settling down now (and might stay married to their current spouses), so also reassures him There’s No Holding Me. Again both singers do a decent job, of a less memorable song.


Sybil breaks it to Ogden that she wants to divorce him, The Dew Was On The Rose Reprise. Fortunately he was thinking of divorcing her and marrying Myra Fox, on breaking this to Reggie it turns out he wants a turn with Elsa Crowell, unfortunately in this round of ‘musical husbands’ (and wives) Charles Crowell “didn’t get a seat” as Sybil puts it. A shocked Ned promptly walks out (typical hero and heroine separated at the end of Act 1), while pretty much everybody else sings a very funny number (funny in a Joan Collins, Elizabeth Taylor sort of way) There’s Nothing Like Marriage For People (and we are the people who know).


Anatt Bass opens the second act with Hope For The Best, a sort of bitter reprise of Tomorrow Is The Time.

Madge, distraught at losing Ned, unsuccessfully attempts to explain to her parents how Ned feels about them, while they attempt to tell her he’s not worthy of her, and rhapsodies about the kind of man they think ought to be Madge’s first husband, My Son In Law. All three sing well, as one would expect (when people like Elizabeth Counsell and James Vaughan have anything to do with it) and the song has its comical moments. Though I did find myself wondering how many songs are there in the world about in-laws (including potential and hypothetical ones), now what on earth sparked off that idea?...


The Butler approaches Mr Meachem, because he and Cook are thinking of getting divorced, they’ve been saving up for it ever since they were married. But he is rebuffed being told that divorce isn’t for people like him. One of the other men, was it Charles or Reggie?  I think it was Charles, chances to overhear this, and wonders how many people in the country are unhappily married but can’t afford a divorce, would it be possible to make divorce cheaper, and therefore more available to people, like Ford cars? It’s a business idea he begins to share with the other three, Land Of Opportunity. They are all keen on making money, the song is one of the funniest, tuneful, catchiest, and in the current economic situation most ironic numbers in the entire show. It is also terrifically well performed, more than one of the men get to lead a verse, because there’s one about the stock market, and one about horse racing. The former really being a case of Ian Marshall-Fisher doing it again, in terms of getting rather unintentional irony into the show, this often seems to happen in Lost MusicalsTM concert staging. It is in this number too that James Vaughan really comes into his own as one of the very best comic singer-actors in the Lost MusicalsTM gang; he knows exactly what he is doing with this sort of number and does it in a manner that is just typical of him at his best in these shows (complete with his funny little trick of moving his eyebrows). A forgotten gem of a number.


Meanwhile, it is Betty Nelson who finally contrives, thanks to similes with Lassie, to get across to Sybil how Madge feels about Ned; and what needs to be done. Sybil agrees to try and stay with Ogden, at least for the next few months, so that Ned will marry Madge. The big question is will the others agree to stay with their respective spouses? Myra, Reggie and Elsa are talked round, trouble ensures with Charles, who has found someone else. A tour de force of comic acting on Elizabeth Counsell’s part has Sybil frantically ringing various people to convince them to halt this round of musical husbands, all so that Ned will marry Madge. When at last she succeeds, Ned returns to be reunited with Madge, Goodbye To All That. And then who should throw a spanner in the works, but Richard Nelson, turning up with Carole Benswanger, whom he wants to marry!


Judicious questioning on Sybil’s part, eventually unearths the truth about whose daughter Carole is, and when Richard realises, he too is horrified at what he nearly did, and edges away from her as quickly as possible, back to Betty, to whom he says “You’d better keep a very close eye on me in the future”. James Vaughan may be acting the role of a complaining buffoon, but in this scene he gives the character a much greater degree of humanity, without which the role would have been a mere caricature, rather than a convincing character.


Having cleared up all the problems, now Ned can marry Sybil, and then, who’d have thought Ned would spring a surprise, while Sybil was sorting out Richard’s narrow escape from incest, Ned and Madge have been married by Mr Meachum (rather than the Bishop), with Betty and possibly the Butler as their witnesses. So now everyone can Stay As We Are, and all ends happily for the time being. This being a cynical sort of musical, although it has a happy ending, we know that given this set of characters in the words of Stephen Sondheim “ever after can mean one week”....


All in all a very interesting rediscovery. George S Kaufman and Nunnally Johnson devised a quite witty book, with some innovative ideas. Arthur Schwartz’s score is pleasant and enjoyable, with one or two catchy numbers, though no showstoppers, while Ira Gershwin’s wonderful lyrics up are to his usual high standard of wit and craft. It’s obvious this show just appeared at the wrong time to be a hit. Yet knowingly or otherwise there are ideas in it that have turned up subsequently, sometimes in quite successful shows. For example the show-within-a-show in Merrily We Roll Along is “all about divorces”, it’s even titled ‘Musical Husbands’, and it’s a hit. In another Sondheim musical Do I Hear A Waltz it’s quite obvious that “happy endings can spring a leak”. While the idea of several (in fact three) dads trying to walk the bride down to aisle surfaced to great effect in Mamma Mia, a worldwide hit, as Louise Gold (Tanya in London Cast 2 &3) so aptly put it “As a bank closes in America, a production of Mamma Mia opens”.  Perhaps in more enlightened times, such as now, it might be right to revive Park Avenue properly, for a limited run perhaps, and one of the smaller West End theatres?  Another problem musicals can encounter, besides just being at the wrong time, is being put on in the wrong sort of theatre, or even the wrong country. A hit on the fringe will not necessarily be the right show for the West End (Tim Luscombe and Jason Carr’s musical play Eurovision being an example there). While sometimes a show that does well in one country doesn’t work so well in another. For example Drowsy Chaperone and Bat Boy both did will in America but not over here (though in Drowsy’s case poor publicity didn’t hit the target audience), while some Sondheim musicals, such as Assassins, have often done better in Britain than in America.


When rediscovering a show, it helps to have a good cast. This afternoon’s was a splendid one. Helen Anker and Stephen Carlile made jolly fine juvenile leads. If Mr Carlile looked at times a little awkward, well that fitted in perfectly with the character. Nicholas Cass-Beggs, Anatt Bass, and, David O’Brien all did satisfactorily in their small but notable parts. As two of the other three socialite wives: Valerie Cutko, and Andrea Miller were perfect casting; Making strong support players, but in roles where they can really concentrate on playing their parts will, without getting out of their depth as performers. The only criticism I have of them is Valerie Cutko’s costume, which didn’t entirely suit her (a black evening dress with very thin shoulder straps and a grey stole), if only her stole had been a cape to cover her shoulders properly it would have been fine (she just looks better with her shoulders covered). Of this trio Nuala Willis, appeared vocally to be the least well suited to her part. However, she made up for this to some extent with her acting, particularly in Act 2. John Rawnsley and Terence Bayler also made good strong supporting players, well balanced with Valerie and Andrea. Meanwhile David Firth proved himself to be a capable actor, who played his part with conviction, and made the audience want to like him. However there are three actors who really stand out in this afternoon’s production, all of whom have done Lost MusicalsTM before, and one would expect them to give a reliably good performance, and all of whom lived up to that expectation. Peter Gale is one of those performers who one can always trust to make a good job of a part, which he certainly did. James Vaughan is another reliable performer, and one of the magic quintet who’ve always brought something extra special to the Lost MusicalsTM. He has been in quite a number of the shows now (not as many as Myra Sands, but slightly more than Louise Gold). During the first act he seemed underused, and a little wasted as a character actor, that all changed early in the second act, when his part emerged as one of those brilliant comic roles he is so good at playing. As a television actor his work generally fails to capture his gift for comic acting. A gift well used in the Lost MusicalsTM. This afternoon ended up being just typical of the kind of super comedy part he is so good at playing. A goofy buffoon, maybe, but one played with total seriousness and conviction. I heard it said that one young gentleman apparently described his performance as “very silly”, that certainly hits the nail on the head, as a good summation.  However, good though all the actors are, the show would not work well without a capable leading lady. Elizabeth Counsell is accustomed to playing leads, and in terms of commanding the stage she’s up there with the best of them. She may be a little old for the character, but acts so well that this really doesn’t matter in the least (after all if Louise Gold when in her early 40s could play a 27 year old ‘old maid’ in a Lost Musical, 110 In The Shade in 1998) then Elizabeth Counsell can certainly play Sybil Bennett in Park Avenue. Excellent casting is one of the best things about this afternoon’s show. Although the Lost MusicalsTM often to quite well, I have seldom seen a show, where the casting was so right for the show. All the actors occupied positions in the show that were generally right for them in relation to the strengths of their fellow performers, so the balance of power between the characters was absolutely right, and all played their parts convincingly. I have sometimes seen Lost MusicalsTM productions where the balance wasn’t quite right.(the most striking example being Of Thee I Sing, and to a lesser extent Silk Stockings), but this afternoon everything was so well balanced. A funny, silly, well performed afternoons entertainment, there was even some characteristically unintended irony. To be sure Ian Marshall-Fisher has done it again.




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