© December 2009
How to describe the
experience of this magical performance. I just don’t know. I’m very fond of Irving
Berlin tunes. And in recent months I seem to have been hearing quite a lot of
them, what with seeing Call Me Madam, Annie Get Your Gun
and now this. Strangely there is another element common to all three. The
legendary Broadway singer-actress whom
This stage show opens with a
1944 setting, where army pals Bob and Phil (played by Aled Jones and Adam
Cooper respectively), with Shedrake (Mark Dickenson) are performing Happy
Holidays. Adam Cooper one should expect a good
performance from, after all not only is he a former Royal Ballet
dancer, he also trained at Arts Educational (before he even went
to the “Wells” school). The surprise of the number is Aled Jones,
for actually managing to keep up with him, in a manner not dissimilar to Frank
Sinatra in Anchors Away. This opening number also contains
one of those things you can only really do with a musical number (a technique
much exploited by composer-lyricists such as
The Lowry stage is a fairly large one, and this is put to good use with some split scenes, the first of these depicts two dressing rooms . To the audience’s left is Bob and Phil’s dressing room on The Ed Sullivan Show, to our right is Betty And Judy’s dressing room at a dive called Jimmy’s. The scene opens with Phil urging Bob to Let Yourself Go. Both men and the ensemble perform the number perfectly well. However, I have one problem with the number. Watching it, I could never quite erase the memory of listing to an excerpt of that song as it appears on The Hot Shoe Shuffle UK Touring cast album; where a certain musical theatre actress managed with a small snippet to make that song very much her own. It seems that Phil is always attempting to pair Bob off with some female, but for Bob this never works. Is that meant to imply anything else about Bob, but it turns out there is no hidden meaning here, Bob has simply never met the right girl. Switching to the other side of the stage, we have a dialogue between Betty and Judy Haynes, played by Rachel Stanley and Suzanne Shaw respectively. It seems that Judy is quite determined to get their sister act ahead, she does not want to go on playing dives for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile Betty, her shyer sister, seems more resigned to doing so. Judy also seems quite determined to find her sister a boyfriend. Interestingly Suzanne Shaw is the one who makes an impression here. We think of her as a pop star, but in fact she can act perfectly well. Rachel Stanley makes less of an impression, though she can sing, but her character is meant to be rather awkward. We come to a very interesting use of the split stage, and a sort of twin soliloquy, not something I had thought of Irving Berlin as writing (though he did write three very fine counterpoint songs, two for Merman). Here we don’t have a counterpoint, but we do have Love And The Weather, handled by Aled and Rachel as if it were a twin soliloquy. Both sing sweetly, and it’s a nice song, though perhaps a little long.
Looking for a sister act, for their up coming show, Phil and Bob arrive at Jimmy’s Back Room, where Betty and Judy are performing their number, Sisters. This is something of an Irving Berlin standard. Like all classics it has had many interpretations, some good, and some terrible. Rachel and Suzanne’s is one of the better versions. They do it very much as two showgirls singing a song in an act. It’s very showy, and accomplished, although it seemed slightly lacking in convincing closeness, I was not entirely convinced that these two were best friends, let alone sisters. I saw a rather more convincing, and unforgettably brilliant, rendition of this song, at Lauderdale House, back in the autumn of 2007, where it was sung by two actresses who genuinely happened to be ‘best friends’. Nevertheless it is probably only by comparison with that version, that I’m critical of Rachel and Suzanne’s efforts, there was nothing in the least wrong with their performance, and in a way it fitted in very well into the context of the show in which they were performing it, after all they are doing it as a show within a show number.
Introductions over, Phil and Judy, who seem to click instantly, get up and dance The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing. Both sing reasonably, but it is their dancing one really notices. Adam Cooper has all the power and grace one might expect from a great classical dancer, whatever genre he is actually dancing in. The surprise of the number is Suzanne Shaw, who does a splendid job of partnering him, she’s such a professional, and you can just tell she’s clearly well trained in dancing.
The pair are also determined
to get Bob and Betty together. This results is Phil contriving to get him and
Bob on the train to
However, if Louise Plowright had brought a certain energy and sparkle to Scene Five, it is nothing compared to the next scene, set in the barn out the back, which is truly dazzling. It opens, and what an opening, with Louise Plowright (who has now changed her frock from patterned yellow to patterned red), striding on stage, armed with a megaphone, belting (without the orchestra) a burst of a legendary number, not actually listed in the programme, There’s No Business Like Showbusiness, very much in the style of Ethel Merman. Amazingly she’s actually convincing. Wow! I didn’t know she could do that! Mostly, with two notable exceptions, when I’ve heard people attempting to imitate The Mighty Merman it doesn’t work, but this little burst does, with so many musical theatre actresses, even to attempt a short piece in the style of Ethel Merman doesn’t quite hit the mark. Ann Emery couldn’t do it (though she tried once on a BBC Christmas Special in 1984). But this is just a starter. The scene progresses with Martha, and Susan presently joined by Bob, Phil, and someone possibly Jimmy (referred to for no apparent reason as “Scooter”) removing the dustsheets covering a piano. The rest of the company quickly join them, and soon some kind of rehearsal is in full swing. This also includes the two giggling girls Rita and Rhonda (played by Laura Scott and Joanna Goodwin) attempting to come on in some shockingly revealing Christmas tree costumes, this is supposed to be a family show. Meanwhile Martha clearly has her own reasons, besides trying to help The General make a success of the inn, for wanting the show-people around. She has already mentioned that she knows a great singer, who can also tap dance. Each time Phil rebuffs her with “later”, or “tell her to send a photograph”. The look on Louise’s face speaks volumes. It is as though the actress has poured into the character a genuine sense of frustration, of what it must really be like for a performer to know they good, know they can do a great job, if only they could get a decent job. A singer-actress who knows full well she could be a great West End standard leading lady, rather than stuck in the muck of a bit-part in a bad soap-opera inspired musical in Leeds (does anyone remember that bloody rubbish?). Fortunately there really is no business like show business, and in this show Louise Plowright has the good luck to have the music, the spotlight, the people ... etc; And in the plot, the guys finally twig that Martha the hotel concierge is in fact an ex-Broadway belter of singer, who starred in six flops, so they give her a chance to sing. At which (like Jerry Allen in the film Alexander’s Ragtime Band) Louise, hits a long loud note, thereby demonstrating that she can hold a note for longer than J. P. Morgan Chase. Then she delivers a line which most singer-actresses just could not do believably, “Ethel Merman said I was loud”. This is genuinely believable. After all when Louise Plowright herself was a West End Leading Lady, shining like the sun at Prince Edward Theatre she had as one of her backing dynamos a singer-actress who ten years earlier, on the very same stage had established her own claim to be ‘The English Ethel Merman’. And belting Let Me Sing And I’m Happy, Louise Plowright promptly demonstrates, that,with her whirlwind drive, (like her ex Mamma Mia colleague) she sure doesn’t need to be told to “sing out ...”. In fact what she does with this song is totally extraordinary. She manages to deliver this song with hint of Ethel Merman’s legendary style less style, and yet at the same time be totally herself, and the character of Martha Watson all rolled into one. Much as I adore hearing first rate musical theatre belters. I am often none-too keen on singers attempting to sing their numbers in the style of Ethel Merman. For the simple reason that the majority of them just don’t do it well enough. Either they don’t have the requisite vocal power, or they slug the song around, or descend too far into grotesque parody, and loose sight of themselves. However in this performance Louise Plowright is as good as Gold, or for that matter Criswell. Indeed the biggest surprise tonight is discovering that she is one of the very few who can really pull this off. Not only can she sing brilliantly, wearing a top hat and carrying a cane she also dances, it’s very much reminiscent of Merman herself in the film Alexander’s Ragtime Band, only the dancing is somewhat better. After all Louise was in British touring production of The Hot Shoe Shuffle.
Anything was going to be a come down after Louise’s amazingly magnificent tour de force. Quite sensibly the next scene was completely different, for no big number could possibly have followed it. In a way it would have been a good place for an interval (many great musicals, especially those written for Merman, do end Act 1 with a showstopping big belt number: Anything Goes in Anything Goes, Ridin’ High in Red Hot And Blue, I Got Rhythm in Crazy For You, and, Old Maid in 110 In The Shade, amongst others). However plotwise it is no place for an interval. Scene Seven set in the front porch of the inn finds several people who can’t sleep, notably Bob, Betty, and Susan. The latter is worried about her grandfather, so Bob comforts her with Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep, and is in his turn comforted by Betty. Aled sings beautifully of course, and Rachel is by no means bad, but after Louise’s extraordinary performance in the previous scene it is hard to pay Aled and Rachel the attention they deserved.
Next we have a dialogue scene, and this is also a split stage scene. To the audience’s left Sheldrake’s office, where Sheldrake himself is on the telephone. To the audience’s right Martha’s Switchboard, with Martha, wearing glasses, and a telephone headset, seated at her switchboard, taking telephone messages. I think that’s the first time I’ve seen Louise Plowright play a role where she had to wear glasses in a scene. (Though she isn’t wearing them in the photograph in the programme). Sheldrake gives Martha a message for Bob. Unfortunately Martha misunderstands the message, and thinks Bob is underhandedly trying to buy out the hotel. “Bob has a company! Oh no” she exclaims to herself (in a voice that sounds very like her Poole pantomime villains, only this time she’s not in the least villainous), on hanging up the phone. Loyal to The General, it’s clear she has resolved to try and stop Bob getting his way. But can she?
By the final scene of the
act, the audience had come back down to earth. The scene is full of energy,
with the whole company involved. General Waverly having found a pile of unpaid
invoices Martha had been hiding from him, is intent on getting an explanation.
Martha, along with Susan, decides to run and hide. Only with The General
chasing them, they run straight into an ensemble rehearsal of Blue Skies.
This is one of those Irving Berlin classics which withstands continual
reinvention, and totally bizarre performances: Alice Faye sang it in the
film Alexander’s Ragtime Band with Ethel Merman of all
people as her backing singer! Jim Henson’s Muppets had a bunch of
prairie dogs sing it, and (thanks to ‘The English Muppet’) one of them
managed to sound uncannily like Ethel Merman. More recently Kim
Criswell made it her own on a solo album of Irving Berlin songs,
where the number benefited from an innovative and very hurriedly written
arrangement by those geniuses
What an act! And what a truly amazing performer Louise Plowright is. Stunning stuff.
Act 2 opens with another classic number, often performed in a variety of guises, I Love A Piano. Perhaps its best known version was sung by Judy Garland in the film Easter Parade. However, for me the most endearing memory of it, is hearing it sung at an R.A.F. Association charity concert by notable West End pit orchestra veteran, Kate Young accompanying herself on the piano (she really brought the lyrics to life). Somehow turning it into a big overblown production number looses its charming feeling (and the lyrics don’t have so much meaning). However it is still a great number, and works perfectly satisfactorily (unlike Gerhswin’s I Got Rhythm which loses a lot of its impact from being overdone). Certainly Adam Cooper, and even more Suzanne Shaw do a fine job of leading the company in this number. In fact the surprise of the piece is Suzanne, for actually managing to keep up and partner Adam so well.
Rehearsals for the show
within a show may be going well, but the love lives of the principals are not.
At least not when Martha confidentially tells Betty what she thinks Bob is up
to. Martha also delivers an invitation, someone has offered Betty a solo
engagement to sing at The Regency Room in
Back in the barn, at a tech rehearsal, both girls are missing, so our two leading men, Phil and Bob have to stand in. This brings us to the first of four reprises in the show, and one of the less satisfactory reprises, because of it being sung by different characters to those who originally performed it quite well. Fortunately, its positioning within the plot suggest that it is not meant to be as good as in Act 1, and it is placed very much as a comical reprise of Sisters, now performed by Aled and Adam. While it is unconvincing, it’s not meant to be convincing, so that’s alright.
Susan, trying to get Martha to tell her whether she has talent, has been practising a number, and armed with a hat and cane, now performs a reprise of Let Me Sing And I’m Happy. Although Anna Bray did her best, and she seems to be a fairly decent young performer, this was unfortunately the worst reprise of the four in the show. However, this wasn’t Anna’s fault. The problem lay in giving her that song, of all things. The one that Louise Plowright had done so sensationally in the first act; especially with Louise actually standing there on stage watching it. A performer attempt a reprise of a number one of their colleagues has practically stopped the show with is asking rather a lot. However, Anna’s difficulty with putting this number across is much the same as that faced by Siobahn McCarthy performing Dancing Queen in Mamma Mia (at least if the performance on the cast album is anything to go by – it just doesn’t sound so good after hearing Louise Plowright sing it), and Siobahn was the original Donna Sheridan, so Anna is in pretty good company. Irving Berlin wrote masses of great show songs, surely they could have found something else just as good for one or other of these two points in the show. (what about: Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Heatwave, I Got The Sun In The Morning, The International Rag, Marching Along With Time, Mr Monotony, My Walking Stick, and, Pack Up Your Sins And Go To The Devil And Hades to name but a few – after all everyone of those was good enough for Ethel Merman).
Then there is a little set to
between The General and Martha. In which The General is looking for his suits,
which Martha informs him are at the laundry, so he’ll have to wear his uniform.
How good Louise is at delivering witty lines. Here David Ives and
The show continues with two more reprises, which work rather better, not least because they are sung by the performers who sang them before, moving on to Christmas Day, Bob and Betty have returned finally together and reprise How Deep Is The Ocean.
In front of the drapes, the
various ex soldiers having now arrived, there is a little kerfuffle, during
which we hear Martha firmly pushing the general out on stage, as most of the
men in the company reprise We’ll Follow The Old Man. The General now quite won over to show
business, and being an innkeeper, welcomes the visitors. Just then it finally
starts snowing, this is shown through the open barn door at the back of the
stage, as Aled leads the company with the title song White Christmas.
With the exception of The General, who is in uniform, the rest of the company
are all dressed in various red costumes. The male ensemble are all in red
trousers and red ad white jumpers. Most of the female ensemble are in red
velveteen-like frocks, the two giggling girls are naturally in red basques. As
for the principals: Aled and Adam are in maroon suits. Rachel and Suzanne in
long red ball-gowns. Anna in a red party frock, and Louise is in a red cocktail
dress, with droopy red bows on black shoes. The finale then finds the whole
company singing I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm. Everyone puts a
lot into it. Louise, with her lovely big fruity voice lends it a certain depth.
And of course not only do they all sing, there is a fair amount of dancing.
Including, I particularly noticed, one moment, where Louise, for no apparent
reason suddenly executed a neat time-step, as though Martha was carried away by
the moment. All in all an absolutely first rate West End standard Christmas
It’s a great fun show, for
all the family; full of lots of lovely tuneful Irving Berlin songs. I
think the show could have benefited from a few more songs, instead of reprises.
But apart from that the songs were great, and thankfully the orchestrations by Larry
Blank do them justice. Irving Berlin’s songs are rarely ruined by
orchestrators, but it can happen (have you ever heard what Adolph Deutsch
and Conrad Salinger et al managed to do to I Got The Sun In The
Morning And The Moon At Night?). The choreography is also excellent.
Between them Randy Skinner, Sara Brians, and, Helen Rymer
have done a fine job, devising dance routines that actually seem to suit the
talents of the performers doing them. It probably helps that the casting seems
to be pretty spot on. Adam Cooper of course gets the lions share of
complex dancing, very ably partnered by Suzanne Shaw. Then Aled Jones
acquits himself surprisingly well; and finally Louise Plowright is
given just the sort of dance routine she seems to handle reasonably
comfortably, without getting anything too horribly complex to do. She gets
something that actually suits her abilities. The book by David Ives and
the ensemble gave a polished professional performance. The orchestra, conducted
by Mr Robert Scott himself was just excellent. Of the various named
characters who are not among the six principals, several are quite noticeable.
There Mark Dickenson as Sheldrake, Phil Cole as Ezekiel the
grounds man (he doesn’t say much, appears rather slow, and yet in the end he
too is caught up with putting on a show). The is Emily Goodenough as the
cigarette girl (though I’m not sure whether there was any reason why her
character was Hungarian – American musicals of a certain era seem to have a
tendency to use Hungarians for a certain kind of “foreigner”, what with:
Zangler in Crazy For You, Hunayk in Chicago, and
Flora Mizaros in Flora The Red Menace, why Hungarians in the
first place? and why in this show of all things?). Then there are Laura
Scott and Joanna Goodwin as Rita and Rhonda two irritatingly giggle
some girls. They at least form a sharp contrast to the rather more sensible
Haynes sisters. There is also the
wardrobe lady, I’m not sure who played her, but she did deliver a wonderful
line rather well. Finally there is Susan Wavely, played tonight by Anna Bray.
Basically Anna does a pretty good job, certainly her acting seems reasonable.
It’s difficult to say anything definite about her singing, because
unfortunately her big number is a reprise of Let Me Sing And I’m Happy,
which was also Louise Plowright’s big number earlier in the show. And it
was really asking rather a lot to expect Anna to make this number her own. I
mean for it to actually work you’d need someone with a talent like that which Judy
Garland had when she sang one of the Showboat numbers in
The show, at least according to it’s poster, has six principals. As General Wavely Roy Dotrice does a generally decent job, manages to be reasonably convincing. As Betty Haynes sometimes referred to as Miss Elizabeth Haynes, Rachel Stanley has the weakest presence of the principals. Fortunately she is able to incorporate this into her character, and she does act well, delivering her lines convincingly. Her singing is not bad. The problem is there are two other principals whose singing is better than hers, and they’ve got more presence too. However, she does give a perfectly satisfactory performance. A very good supporting player, or minor principal. Playing Betty’s sister Judy Haynes, Suzanne Shaw comes across rather better. People tend to think of Suzanne as a pop singer. But in fact, while her singing is clearly more than ok. Certainly good enough to handle some popular Irving Berlin songs decently, her role in this show plays much more to her strengths as a dancer. She has a fair amount of charisma, able to hold the audience well, when she needs too. Her character Judy Haynes, comes across as very likeable, despite being occasionally a little underhand (to get her way – such as sending Phil and Bob a note supposedly from a mutual friend). Perhaps her experiences playing Janet Weiss in the legendary 2006/07 tour of Rocky Horror may have helped. Playing a very definite song-and-dance man role, in the style of: Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, or Donald O’Connor, we have Adam Cooper. The character tends most to the Gene Kelly type, I think. The character is called Phil Daniels; Making it one of those unfortunate characters, like Eric Dare in Jubilee, and Moon Face Martin in Anything Goes, where there actually exists a real person in a similar profession to their fictional namesake. This could unfortunately cause problems for future productions of this show. I hope it doesn’t, but sad to say such occurrences sometimes do (Certainly both Anything Goes, and, Jubilee have suffered as a consequence of such things). Anyway, Adam Cooper plays the character perfectly well. It is not a particularly complicated character (compared to others in the show). A bit of a ladies man, who very suddenly falls in love with just one girl. A very typical male character for a musical comedy. His singing is entirely satisfactory, as far as I can tell. After all these are Irving Berlin songs (not Cole Porter, or Sondheim). His dancing is, as one would expect, given his training, brilliant. Anytime he has to move about the stage you can’t help noticing that legacy.
The other major male character is Aled Jones, whom we primarily think of as a singer, which indeed is his main role in this show, and he does get to sing some lovely Berlin Ballads, perhaps in the style of Bing Crosby. However, one of the show’s surprises, is that he also has to dance, and since he must dance with Adam it has to be done well. This makes his performance more like Frank Sinatra. Fortunately Aled clearly can dance. Obviously he’s not at Adam’s level. However, he does jolly well.
The biggest surprise of the
show is Louise Plowright. Tonight she is superbly well cast and
correspondingly on top form. The character she plays suits her so well as an
actress. She has just enough dancing to suit her capabilities. Her costumes
also seem to suit her. It’s kind of strange having her blond hair hidden under
a titan wig (though it does accentuate a sororial similarity to a certain
diva). Anyway the wig seems to be right for the character she is playing.
Everything is so right for her in this role (though she could have done with a
couple more numbers), and best of all her singing is perfect. The musical
director has evidently figured out how to get very best out of her. Ever since
I first saw her in Mamma Mia, I knew she was a fine
singer-actress. I also knew that as an accomplished actress, at least given the
right role, she is well capable of holding her own on the stage no matter who
her co-stars are. If she’s leading lady, then no one, absolutely no one, can
overshadow her. I also knew that as a
splendid musical theatre singer she can usually make a good song her own, no
matter who else has sung that number (at least if she likes the song). I also
knew that she could belt reasonably well. What I didn’t know, is just how good and
powerful a brassy Broadway-style belter she really is! One who can actually
sock the lyrics over the footlights like a baseball coach belting a fly. Her
piste de resistance comes in the middle of Act 1 (well two thirds of the
way through it). When she tackles the near impossible-to-do-well task of
singing in the styless style of Ethel Merman. If I hear a singer attempt
to do a number a la Merman I want to hear a performance that will give me a
sense of what it must have been like to be in the
This production of White
Christmas has a very high standard cast. No one is actually bad. Even
the less good performances are not so terrible. Producer
Off Site Links:
To read my review of Red Hot And Blue fifteen years ago (the last time I was unexpectedly stunned by discovering a Mermaneque belter), please click here (I’ve heard some great Merman-style singing since then, but its always been from performers whom I knew what to expect).