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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park


  Ph: Tristram Kenton

There was a time when the setting of London’s playhouse in the park was more rewarding than the productions that were put on there. Under Ian Talbot’s steady but often-uninspired direction, the sheer verdant beauty of the venue outperformed many of the shows. 
Nothing better illustrates how much has changed since Timothy Sheader took over in 2007 than the quality of the Open Air’s musicals. A couple of years ago Sheader’s revival of Hello Dolly! served up that ecstatic combination of melody, energy and, thanks to Stephen Mear, sublime choreography that every fan of the genre yearns for. 
And although this time I’d have preferred their talents to be deployed with a less frivolous offering than this Gerswhin extravaganza, Sheader and Mear again prove that they are the most potent creative team working in British musical theatre. 
Based on the Gershwins’ Depression-era Girl Crazy, this reconfigured version was first seen in 1993. It has a new story by Ken Ludwig and jettisons most of the original show’s 19 songs while plundering the Gershwins’ back catalogue to replace them. 
The hero of Ludwig's frothy story is banker Bobby (Sean Palmer), who loves to dance and falls head over heels for the girl whose theatre he is supposed to foreclose on. It’s a tale of boy meets girl and East (Bobby is from New York) meets West (Polly is from Dead Rock). 
Ludwig has done a fine job taking songs whose provenance was elsewhere and grafting them onto his narrative. But sometimes the stitches show. "They Can’t Take That Away from Me" will always be Fred Astaire’s, and instinct tells you that the only twaddle it should be attached to is the story in Shall We Dance
But who can deny the irresistible force of a superbly drilled chorus line? This one goes into overdrive with "I Got Rhythm" (a survivor from the original 1930 show) and then again with "Slap That Base" (another from Shall We Dance). 
It has been said before, but it is still true that few British productions deliver the all-American song-and-dance musical to the standard that is meat and drink to Broadway. But Sheader and Mear get the American work ethic out of their cast. Perhaps Palmer’s dancing could benefit from more snap and less glide. But on an evening where one of the showstoppers – the rain – literally caused the production to pause for a mopping-up operation, most dancers would throttle back a little. Though Clare Foster didn’t. Her Polly has something of Bernadette Peters’ sass about it. 
Whether Ludwig’s original collaborators in 1993 – director Ben Ockrent and choreographer Susan Stroman – would agree is a different standard of proof, but never has the very English Open Air smelled so authentically American.


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