Face The Music
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by Moss Hart
It's showtime and TLT and her trusty four-wheeled steed took a detour from their usual West End and fringe venues to venture into the exotic East. That is E17, namely Walthamstow and Ye Olde Rose and Crown.
This pub theatre has built up a reputation, like the Union Theatre in South London, for resurrecting lesser known musicals. Indeed, this musical was truly “lost”, painstakingly excavated by the US musical archivists’ team from the Rogers and Hammerstein Organization. (There’s a bit of industry inside knowledge for you gleaned from the internet – the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization also represents the Irving Berlin copyrights!).
Certainly quite a few musical theatre afficianados, all of whom are on the venue’s mailing list, sat alongside TLT at this first preview, eager to see a re-discovered piece directed by Brendan Matthew in its UK première, Face The Music
No, not the other Irving Berlin show with the famous song "Let’s Face The Music And Dance”. Rather, an earlier revue-type musical written four years before in 1932 with a topical book by Moss Hart about – er – police graft in the Depression ...
Yes, you read correctly Irving Berlin wrote a score which underneath all the gags and sunny satire is a pretty angry show about police and mayoral graft, prostitution, money laundering, fixed court cases – and, oh yes, putting on a show.
From the outset, one has to say this was a very unbalanced (especially as regards sound levels) production but there was enough in it to make TLT wonder what it could be.
At the same time, there was the frustration of a small orchestra often overpowering the voices in the cavernous hall serving as auditorium in this shoestring theatre, plus some strange staging choices affecting sightlines in the first act.
But the costumes (designer Joana Dias) are ingenious and the dance routines (choreographer: Sally Brooks) satisfyingly witty with plenty of floor space for hoofers to hoof, cutting some particularly cute vaudeville silhouettes.
The casting and styling too felt ingenious. Alessandro Lubrano as the juvenile lead Pat Mason, hair slicked to one side, actually looks like Irving Berlin in a chirpy performance with a clear singing voice including one of the better known songs “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee”. He’s matched by Joanna Hughes as Kit Baker as his love interest, maybe a little hampered by an underwritten role, but with equally sprightly vocals.
And to continue the likenesses, Ceris Hines as vaudevillian Pickles Crouse, with a passing resemblance to Betty Boop/Julia McKenzie, gives an engagingly kooky and strong rendition of “I Don’t Wanna Be Married”, hoofing pleasingly with partner Lewis Dewar Foley as
Mickey Rooney Joey Malarkey.
While James Houlbrooke’s besotted police officer even managed to remind us of
another James -- Jimmy Stewart.
Whether or not these resemblances were intentional, it gave a satisfying resonance for this audience member.
Joanne Clifton, of BBC’s ballroom hit Strictly Come Dancing fame, showed the expected grace in dance routines but also considerable singing chops and sincerity as actress-turned-street-walker in the satiric Torch Song and on the witness stand.
“The producer came to me/That’s the night I lost my [pause] modesty ...the business is dropping/The show is not liked by the mob ... And judge, I needed the job!”
It’s that kinda raw show, it’s that kinda life as the show was first performed during a real investigation into New York City police and magistrates’ courts corruption with its litany of bribery, perjury, framing of the innocent, fraud and false imprisonment.
Sure, the impressario Hal Reisman played by Samuel Naughton manages to put on a show, where in a piece of legalistic ventriloquism, the police, lousy with ill-gotten cash, launder their money and then have to raid the show for indecency after expected failure turns to success.
Then in the second act he puts on a sop of a court case (“on every front page and they don’t even charge for admission”). So naturally there’s a happy ending for the manacled-together criminals, show people, court officials, judge, police chief (David Anthony) and wife (Laurel Dougall) – all rigged by the impressario of course.
Perhaps influenced by 1920s’ Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil without the overt socialist critique, it’s also as tough in its own way as Mel Brooks’s The Producers thirty years later which it obviously influenced. And maybe it stretches forward even to the 1975 John Kander and Fred Ebb Nowadays premise of Chicago .
Anyway it was a raggedy sort of experience in Walthamstow with TLT and jalopy straining to follow the story and lyrics, but foiled much of the time by the sound levels and sometimes a little too much comedy mugging.
One hopes now some of the flaws are ironed out as it enters mid-run. The audience, in an L-shape around the performing space, all seemed to relish, like TLT, the quality choreography and sporadic high points. So despite misgivings over sound levels, it’s an amber light for an intriguing piece.
And come to think about it, perhaps we’ve been misdirected about Irving Berlin by Fred Astaire’s pristine top hat and tails and Ginger Rogers’ high heels and feathers ... “Before The Fiddlers Have Fled” could be construed as pretty damned angry ...
PS Having gone to see the first preview, TLT and her horsepower scarlet sidekick felt it only fair to forgo posting a next-day review but wait until further into the run.