Fast talking screwball comedy musical from 1934 set on an ocean going liner. It is humorously cynical, sometimes so cynical that it mocks its own cynicism.
Lots of national treasurers on one stage — Robert Lindsay, Felicity Kendall, Gary Wilmot; Brits being Yanks with Noo York accents, and one authentic Yank, Sutton Foster, giving some glamour and oomph to the production. It’s all cocktails, bias cuts, frivolity, gangsters, celebrity hunting, gaining and losing fortunes, con tricks and such songs. It does feel like a cynical Guys and Dolls before its time. It also nicely plays into the current national mood — being trapped in the same place with the same people for days on end and… travel.
It also overcomes some stereotypes of the time by having diverse casting, playing on the cheeky humour and getting around possible zoonoses by having a delightful puppet dog (who doubles as a beard!) and a cuddly bulldog, who suits up for the action, and can also be purchased as a shop souvenir!
The ocean going liner set with funnels, flashing lights and funnels is wonderfully realised and doubles up as a dance stage. Cabins and the hold wheel on and off. There are doors for characters to pop in and out of for mistaken identities!
Struggling Wall Street stock broker joins the liner to pursue the girl he loves, who is engaged to an English Lord, avidly collecting American slang, misapplying it and incredibly affable (apart from the hint of Roma via Buenos Aires Tango) in him. Public Enemy No 13 is also on board, as is Reno (the glamourous and smart singer) pursues the stock broker, then teams up with Public enemy no 13 to con the English Lord and get the guy his gal, (only it doesn’t quite work like that). There’s also the squeaky voiced moll of No 13 — a comic act in her own right and cursed with ‘sex appeal’. Felicity Kendal is the mother of the girl and experiences a lot of shocks along the way. Plus the stock broker’s boss is on board too and prone to losing his glasses! Then a fake vicar is arrested (being public enemy No 2 and the stock broker impersonates the gangster, achieving celebrity for the ship and fame for himself, with a party! How will it all end?!!! With multiple weddings (in a remarkably modern themed set).
Mostly faithful to the 1930s setting, everyone is impossibly glamourous; the dancers outdance the stars and everyone taps dances! Sutton Foster has a great voice, stage presence and charisma, particularly when partnered with Robert Lindsay’s hoofing con man friend or with the suddenly (but comedically) romantic English Lord. A blue light for a blue bird of freedom is terrific fun as the con men are in the jail in the hold, and there’s a wonderful bit where Lindsay and Sutton stop and admire being on stage infront of an audience, rapped back into action by the conductor’s baton. And the lively, bouncy conductor is very good too — donning a Captain’s hat at the start and keeping everything going, as the supporting band disappear further and further under the stage.
There are some dated issues — such as colonial, Asian sex trafficking (although this is glossed over as a love match), and I’m very unsure about the appropriation of black church gospel music to promote and worship sexy women as goddesses. It’s something 1920s/1930s musicals do a lot (and I guess black Christian gospel music was getting muddled up with jazz and swing); but here it’s the whole thing — of priesthood, the concept of a church service, of confession, of worship, of sex, even of prayer and men mimicking being ‘slain in the Spirit’ (though enraptured by early twerking rather than the Lord) — rather bizarrely ending in a song about resisting temptation and going to heaven aka the Promised Land. Whilst happy house and dance music today does the same thing with its many, many references to higher places, believing, putting all they are (worship) in one person, going to heaven; just because it’s old and set to a banging tune with some salacious dance moves, is this poor taste? Who or what are we worshipping here and as a Christian, should I be offended that brothers and sisters worship form is being appropriated and misapplied in this way? Blow, Gabriel, Blow had me uncomfortable and often appalled at how this religious form was being reframed and reused. Again, religious language and indeed belief is cynically used, misused and mocked; although the mockers may be being mocked too.
Though the performance and singing was tremendous….
Everything though is mocked from romance, to love of money for the love of money, to how rich people view poverty (living in hotels), to the establishment and perhaps even our lack of faith — given all the cynicism, it makes it hard for the actual romance to shine through (of the start crossed, opposed lovers). It is a lot of fun, but the English Lord and Sutton Foster shine through as do the backing dances — many of whom are much better than the leads. Did like the way that height differences were compensated for by the man doing a twirl rather than the woman and almost made a thing of! But I guess that’s also the point — maybe we are meant to be a little prurient as we gaze on the super rich where anything goes and all that makes society work is thrown away!
Cole Porter’s dexterously rhyming couplets (You’re The Top); couples agilely balancing on luggage trolleys or a hoisted rope and no wonder there is an affable English Lord — P.G Wodehouse was involved in this one. Lots of fun, lots of songs, wonderful costumes, super glamourous, wonderful costumes, tap dancing set pieces (love that nautical theme); clothes swopping in the jail! and a multiple wedding ending! Wonderful to see a full theatre and a full stage and glad to have seen this rescheduled from Lockdown production…. and Robert Lindsay hoofing the stage!