Red Hot & Blue
Barbican Cinema 1, Sunday 9th October 1994
I had never been to one of Ian Marshall-Fisher’s Lost Musicals before, so I was really uncertain what to expect from this show, the one where Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante’s famous “Battle of The Billing” occurred. I thought to myself “I hope to goodness they have somebody decent for Ethel Merman’s part, because its not going to be very good if they don’t!” It is so difficult to find anyone who can do songs written for Ethel Merman decently. Her styless style is well nigh impossible to imitate well. Singers who try to do it that way seldom seem to have the necessary power, and worse still they rarely sound convincing belters. Kim Criswell at least, by doing them in her own way, can succeed in making Merman’s songs her own (but in her style not Merman’s). The other examples I have heard, in particular Ruthie Henshall and Tyne Daly, failed to convince me that they were equipped for the job. I am not trying to detract from their talents at singing in other styles of song; I am just saying that they are not that much like Ethel Merman.
The show took place on the stage of Barbican Cinema 1, with just a piano accompaniment, the actors wore evening dress, and when “off-stage” sat on chairs at the back of the stage. There was no programme, only a cast-list, from first glance none of the actors names appeared at all familiar, which was quite worrying, would they be any good? Nails O’Reilly Duquesne (the Ethel Merman part) was to be played by one Louise Gold (who I had not heard of before, or so I thought). The evening started with the cast coming on stage, taking their seats. Among the actors is a tall striking woman, wearing a long dark burgundy dress (the rest of the company are almost entirely in black) with a mass of pre-Raphaelit red hair that fell untidily about her shoulders. Initially, I was not exactly keen on her somewhat “different” appearance. The producer, Ian Marshall-Fisher, came to the centre of the stage and proceeded to introduce the evening’s performance by explaining the show’s background.
The show itself started set in the Warden’s Office of Larks Nest Prison, with the prisoners singing At Ye Old Coffee Shoppe In Cheyenne, a song about the joys of being in prison. Conditions in Larks Nest are so good the prisoners don’t want to leave. A commotion is caused and the alarm sounded because a group of ex-prisoners are trying to break into the prison! The Prison Warden, Trevor Jones, has called one prisoner, Policy Pinkle, the role originally played by Jimmy Durante, into his office. Policy enters, supposedly carrying a polo-mallet (this production has no props); he is played by Don Fellows. Policy is coming up for parole, which horrifies him because he does not want to leave the prison, especially not with the forthcoming polo match next week. However, it has been decreed he is to be released on parole. Mrs Duquesne needs a man to work for her on a fundraising project for a charity, and Policy Pinkle has been chosen for the task.
The next scene is set in Mrs Duquesne’s Penthouse in New York City. It opens with the ensemble, in particular a chorus of girls singing It’s A Great Life, followed by a song about the joys of being Perennial Debutante’s. This was followed by a couple of minor characters (I can’t remember exactly who) singing Ours. Next we meet Nail’s maid, a former reform school-girl, Peaches Le Fleur, a notable character, played rather well in this production by Myra Sands, she seems to spend most of the production yelling for her mistress.
Sometimes when a character first enters, especially in a show without proper costumes it can be hard to work out who they are, or what their purpose is in the show. But the next character’s entrance made it clear right from the start. The tall Pre-Raphalite red-headed woman, who, up till now had been sitting at the back, to the right hand side of the stage, got to her feet and strode across purposefully into the scene. We immediately knew this is our Leading Lady. Louise Gold proves to be a commanding stage presence. Her acting is good, she remains totally in character, yet at the same time she is very much in charge of and carries any scene she is in, much, one suspects like the legendary Ethel Merman probably did. Yet at the same time as being commandingly in charge, she projects a likeable warmth, one cannot help but be on her side. Her character, Nails O’Reilly Duquesne, we learn, is an ex-manicurist, who married well, and, widowed, now runs a charity rehabilitating prisoners. All her household staff are ex-criminals (from Prison or Reform School). To raise funds for her charity, her Lawyer, Bob Hale, played in the original production by Bob Hope, and in this production by the handsome Neil McCaul, has come up with a perfectly legal scheme to run a Lottery. Because they are not allowed to use the mails for gambling, they will use the females to sell their Lottery tickets, Policy Pinkle is to co-ordinate this. They decide that the winner of the Lottery will get half of the total revenue as prize-money. The only question the trio are left with is how will they choose the winner. It is Bob who inadvertently comes up with the answer. Many many years ago, when he was a little boy living on River Drive in New York, he had a childhood sweetheart, called Baby. One day, when he tried to kiss her, she sat on a hot waffle iron by mistake, and thus ended up with a waffle mark on her bum. As Bob still believes himself to be in love with Baby, they decide that the winner of the lottery should be the person who reunites Bob with his childhood sweetheart.
Policy and Bob exit. Nails is alone on the stage, in love with Bob, herself, she is Down In The Depths On The 90th Floor to find that he loves another. Clearly Louise Gold can act well, and is likeable, but can she sing? Yes she can sing alright, as this torch number proved she is by no means a bad singer, in fact, she is really rather good; strong and yet sweet, as a leading lady in a Merman musical she’ll do. It is nice to note that she sings with convincing feeling, as if she means what she says, an important quality in a show music singer. Although this is a concert staging, with the cast in evening dress and dance routines cut, never-the-less, as in the original, for part of this song our leading lady stood with her back to the audience, this only seemed comical to those of us who knew the point of it (in the original production Miss Merman had had a funny bustle on her costume, until she objected because it was making the audience laugh behind her back). In shows with certain performers, such as Ethel Merman, it is wise not to follow their solos with anything requiring another principle player, so the next number Carry On, was a Lottery ticket selling one for the chorus, which they performed well.
Now we come to a memorable scene, in a committee room in the Senate. Nails and Policy are up before the senate charged with illegally running a lottery. Naturally, as her lawyer, Bob is defending Nails. Nails takes her seat in the centre of the stage, sitting such that she is at a slight angle to the audience, and stretches out her long legs, which are covered by the large skirt of her dress. Bob is standing at the side of the scene to her left (the audiences right). As the scene progresses Nails beings subtly hiking up the hem of her dress, revealing a pair of fine looking legs. The other characters present can hardly fail notice what she is doing, and presently Bob is moved to stop her saying “Now, now, you’re not on a witness stand now you know.” Reluctantly Nails lets the hem of her dress drop down, at which point the Senators start arguing “Yes she is” “This is about the biggest witness stand there is”, where-upon Nails frantically scrabbles up the hem of her dress, even higher than she had before. It is a tradition in fictional American Courtroom scenes, that if a woman is on the witness stand, she must show her legs; the film Roxie Hart, has the catch phrase “Roxie your knees”. For this to be effective, though, one needs an actress with good legs. As it was shown in the film Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Ethel Merman had pretty good legs, and it has to be said that Louise Gold most certainly has too.
After Nails, it is Policy Pinkle’s turn, although in a way he would quite like to go back to Prison, he has some loyalty to Nails and Bob. He insists on defending himself with the song A Little Skipper From Heaven Above, about a sea-Captain who is a woman disguised as a man. Don Fellows sang this funny song well enough, although I do wonder what it can have sounded like when Jimmy Durante did it. The Senators cannot, find anything forbidding the Lottery, and so have to drop the matter. Back at the Lottery headquarters, Nails finally tells Bob about her long held feelings for him. You’ve Got Something. They both proved to be fine singers.
Nails is not the only person in her household who is keen on Bob. Her maid, Peaches Le Fleur clearly fancies Bob too, and is always trying to get him, a characteristic that Myra Sands played to perfection. Bob finds Peaches attentions quite a nuisance, he is always having to slap her, to stop chasing him. On this particular occasion, having finally had enough, he orders Peaches to bend over so he can slap her on the bum, and then he notices.... Oh no!.... she has a waffle mark on her bum! She explains that she accidentally, sat on a hot waffle iron when she was four years old. She was his childhood sweetheart. Bob does not reveal this to Peaches, all at once he is no longer in love with her. Now, he recognises that his true love is for Nails. He goes to Nails and acknowledges his love for her, without revealing what he has found out about Peaches. They duet It’s Delovely, and this proved to be a delicious number, sung delightfully by two delovely singers.
Bob confides in Policy, and they plot: Policy will get Peaches out of the way. He gets her quite literally “Posted” (as a parcel) somewhere. Then Policy and Bob, try to brand Nails! They set up a chair, in Policy’s Bedroom, with a waffle iron on it, cunningly hidden by a cover. Nails enters and sits down. There followed a most amusing scene, where they and Nails were having a completely nonsensical conversation, while the audience the audience were on tenterhooks wondering if Nails would twig what they were up to, and whether she was going to get branded. Nails was puzzling over something in her mind, saying that it wasn’t making any connection, which made Policy and Bob realise that their waffle iron was not switched on. In fact, they never actually succeed in branding Nails. However, what does become clear to Nails is how much Bob loves her.
Nails is so hap hap happy she’s got her man that she is Ridin’ High. And with this number, Ridin’ High is exactly what both the leading lady and the show are doing. Until this point in the show Louise Gold had shown herself to be a fine actress, with all the presonce a leading lady requires, and a very good singer. But suddenly our minds were blown away, for now she really let rip with a full Merman-style whirlwind drive that hit the audience right between the eyes. We sat in stunned amazement; I have honestly never heard anything like it! The power and talent that she poured into that song is just utterly incredible. In a sense (if one half closed ones eyes) she was almost Ethel Merman, and yet at the same time, Louise Gold is very much her own personality, both characteristics shone through in this strikingly memorable number. Louise Gold is just breathtakingly good! It was such an extraordinary showstopper that it was just as well it ended the first act.
Act 2 opened with the chorus in a room in the Whitehouse, singing We’re About To Start Big Rehearsing, followed by Hymn To Hymen. Once Baby is found Bob will have to marry her, irrespective of the fact that he now loves someone else. So far, no one has used Peaches as the entry candidate. The minor couple who had been around earlier duet What A Great Pair We’ll Be. Meanwhile, back on the main plot, Bob finds that Peaches has turned up, she is still chasing him. He tells her that if she isn’t careful she’ll be sent back to her reform school. Now it is Myra Sands’s turn to shine as an actress, replying coolly that that is exactly what just happened to her, she got posted back to her reform school, “and while I was there I looked up my record. It says that I used to live on River Drive, New York, so that means I’m eligible to enter...” Bob, distraught, produces a pair of thick tights, which he orders her to wear. Meanwhile, the Senators, having failed to block the Lottery have decided to place an entry on behalf of the American nation, they need an eligible girl, where-upon they find Peaches.
To prevent Bob, The Lottery Lover, from absconding before Baby has been found, and he married to her, he has been imprisoned in an army barracks near The Whitehouse. Nails comes to visit him. When he holds out his hand to great her, she sees the state of his finger nails and exclaims “I can’t let you get married with your nails looking like this! Have you a manicure set?” On one being produced she proceeds to manicure Bob’s fingernails, saying with convincing conviction “I’ve always wanted to do this”. Since, this concert staging was done without props, our actors had to mime this. Bob standing at the far right of the stage (audience way round), with Nails on his right (towards centre stage). While she works, Nails serenades Bob with You’re A Bad Influence On Me, which she sang very nicely.
It is nearly time for the contest to take place, on The Whitehouse Lawn, but just before it does, our astounding leading lady has one more solo, the show’s title song Red Hot And Blue! I suspect that in the original production this song fulfilled the same function that Buddie Beware did in Lindsay, Crouse, Porter and Merman’s show of two years earlier, Anything Goes. It is a song for the leading lady, revealing the facts about her life, to sing in front of the drapes while the set is being changed for the finale. In this show, with no scenery, the song might have seemed unnecessary, however, it is a terrific song, and provided our glorious leading lady with a wonderful opportunity to delight the audience with her mind-blowing vocal powers. She sang the number powerfully with enthusiasm and complete conviction, she really means what she says, and looks like she’s enjoying saying it. In this production the singers were unmiked, like Ethel Merman before her, this red hot singer Louise Gold clearly doesn’t need miking. She was just as mesmerising as she had been earlier in Ridin’ High. This woman is truly extraordinary, what on earth is her background? Why isn’t she better known? And who wants to hear singers like Ruthie Henshall, Elaine Paige and Tyne Daly sing numbers written for the mighty Ethel Merman, when Louise Gold can show us how they should really be sung!
The finale is the Lottery contest. According to Ethel Merman’s autobiography, the girls in the contest wore dresses with discrete slits cut in the skirts, so Nails with a quick glance could see whether they had the identifying mark. In this production, however, Nails and Policy inform us (by explaining to the Senators) that X-Ray lights have been rigged up, for the contestants to walk past, with Nails watching to see if any shows the identifying mark. Each of the girls in the contest is presented by whoever is entering them, and goes up to the lights. Not surprisingly none of them show the mark. Finally, the Senators entry, Peaches, is presented, and naturally is found to be the winner. She is delighted, at last she will have Bob. Oh how joyfully girlish did Myra Sands portray her. But just as the wedding ceremony (on the Whitehouse Lawn) is about to start, the Senators announce that since they won half the profits from the Lottery, on behalf of the American people, the Lottery benefits the American people, and because of this it must be declared void. With the Lottery declared void, Bob, no longer has to marry winning contestant, much to his relief, and Peaches’s disappointment. However, the people are expecting a wedding to take place, what is to be done? Then someone says it, what about Nails. Enter Nails, in a suitable outfit to be married. (Since the actors are in evening dress, we have to use our imagination here; but, Louise Gold certainly helped matters, just the way she moves seems to express how her character is meant to be dressed). Thus Nails gets the only man she loves, Bob, who finds his true love in Nails. “But what about me” pipes up the distinctive voice of Myra Sands’s Peaches Le Fleur. At which it is suggested, why not pair her off with Policy Pinkle. Both seem quite satisfied at this prospect, after all they have much in common (having been in trouble with the law). Thus this cheerful, funny, lighthearted show comes to a happy conclusion.
I had never seen one of Ian Marshall-Fisher’s Lost Musicals before, but it was terrifically good fun, and well worth seeing, this is a great way to see musicals performed, not least because all the performers were so good. The chorus consisting of: Paul Stewart, Simon Joslin, Garrick Forbes, Trevor Jones, Danielle Carson, Maria Rawlings, Philip Dey, Rachel Izen, Kate Dyson, Sarah Redmond, Godfrey Charles and Peter Prentice were all excellent, well accompanied by Mark Warman on the piano. Four artistes in particular stand out: Neil McCaul proved to be quite possibly better than Bob Hope in his role. Myra Sands, who it turns out was in the original cast of Cats, certainly made quite an impression as Peaches Le Fleur (the girl-with-the-waffle-mark-on-her-bum). Don Fellows, who it turns out was in the original London production of Crazy For You, was quite adequate in the Jimmy Durante role; however, he was rather outshone by our beautiful, tall, striking, red hot leading lady, who has all the power, stage presonce and voice necessary to really tackle an Ethel Merman part, the way it was intended, and yet make it very much her own. Her appearance may be a little different to the others, especially with her tousled chestnut hair, but that only adds to her personality. Her voice is truly remarkable; I have never heard anything like it. It is so gloriously wonderful, and very well suited to singing Cole Porter, a la Ethel Merman. All I can say is that: Louise Gold is someone to listen out for!!
Webmaster's footnote: Although this review was actually written some time after the event, the author has tried to write it exactly as if it had been written at the time.