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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
SATURDAY NIGHT
at the Arts

GREENER PASTURES TO COME
By MATT WOLF

  The cast of Saturday Night

Early Stephen Sondheim gets a shot in the arm with the charming London revival of Saturday Night, the little-known 1954 musical from a then 24-year-old composer-lyricist in pre-legend embryo that is both alluring in its own right and ceaselessly evocative of the career that then was still to come. A piece of genuine esoterica, the show was first seen 11 years ago at London's Bridewell Theatre in a tiny production that, frankly, didn't begin to do it justice. Here it is again, substantially upgraded in a transfer to the Arts Theatre from an earlier sellout run at the Jermyn Street auditorium, several streets away. The matinee I attended was far from full, which didn't stop a fresh-faced company of actor-musicians doing the piece proud. As it happens, the company's self-evident enthusiasm for the project is entirely appropriate to a show about people - well, one particular person - with ambition who discover, as a musical classic entirely unrelated to Sondheim once put it, that there's no place like home.

Home in this case is Brooklyn, an unexpected locale for so confirmed a Manhattanite as Sondheim who in this instance was working with the Oscar-winning Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip of Casablanca renown, on this song-and-dance version of their play, Front Porch In Flatbush, about yearnings for a life beyond. The specific Elysium is, inevitably, Manhattan, which exerts much the same siren song here as it would two decades on to the hip-swivelling Tony Manero and friends in Saturday Night Fever, a film (and, alas, stage show) with a title that expands on this one. "Weeknights, I'm a Brooklyn boy but on Saturday night, I got class," we hear in a first act given over to visions of "the beautiful people who live out there." Small wonder, then, that Gene Gorman (David Ricardo-Pearce , giving a sparkling breakout performance) dreams of dressing up and nights at the Plaza and an apartment on Sutton Place. For a while, he shares his vision with a woman he thinks is named Helene but who is in fact Helen, the pragmatically minded daughter of a man who works in the poultry business. If all else fails, Helena Blackman's delightful Helen says by way of scant consolation, this Wall Street wannabe could always get a job as a chicken plucker. Funny: spring, 1929, when Saturday Night is set, suddenly sounds like the same season 80 years later.

The score is witty and winning in itself and attractively suggestive in that way that a prominent artist's juvenilia so often is. "So Many People," a first-act duet for Helen and Gene, has a distinct whiff about it of "Too Many Mornings" from Follies, a show whose own anti-heroic Ben is in many ways Gene grown up - and gone sour. One gets something of the sting of Company, too, from those buddies of the intriguingly motherless Gene who warn him off marriage: "Don't do it, Gene," or so goes an admonition at least as severe as any put Bobby's way.

Sondheim would presumably have been well aware of Bernstein's 1953 Wonderful Town while putting this show together, which may account for a second-act paean to Brooklyn that registers as an outer borough's choral equivalent to the hymn to lower Manhattan proffered by the earlier work. The musical's view of the police - they make you "all teary-eyed" - seems another step on the path from the cozy neighborhood cop that prevailed on Broadway in the early 1950s to the satiric Officer Krupke-style cut-and-thrust of West Side Story, just as Saturday Night offers its resident, rather more articulate version of Anybodys in Joanna Hickman's shouty Celeste, who is busy minding everybody's business.

 


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