Here’s one that takes you back. There are two journeys. The first is to the American musical of the early 1960s, just after Bernstein and Sondheim had raised the bar to fresh heights with West Side Story. The second is to the flowering of London pub theatre a decade later; up the scuffed stairs of a big old urban boozer, past the fire extinguisher and the dressing room door, then into a large function room pressed into service for a burgeoning fringe. Faint sounds of a band from somewhere else, food smells coming up, a single desk-fan struggling nobly against the heat, and then a cast almost half the size of the audience exploding into a Broadway routine.
All Star Productions is one of those companies that seems to defy the gravity of theatre budgetry by mounting such pieces as Little Me. As ever on these occasions there is an irony in the presence of the young cast’s modest CVs next to the sheer glitz and chutzpah of the show’s provenance. Book by Neil Simon, as in The Odd Couple, Biloxi Blues and other smashes; music by Cy Coleman, as in “Big Spender” and countless numbers for Sinatra, Bennett, Cole and their contemporaries; lyrics by Carolyn Leigh as in “Young at Heart” and “The Best Is Yet To Come”; choreography by Bob Fosse; Broadway Premiere at the Lunt-Fontaine Theatre in 1962, Syd Caesar as one of the leads; then West End production two years later with, good heavens, Bruce Forsyth in the Caesar role.
In bringing it to Ye Olde Rose and Crown in Walthamstow, All Star is giving it its first professional revival for thirty years. It’s something of a Great Unknown, a closet cracker of a musical, recounting the life of a fictitious star called Belle Poitrine in tones of romance and nostalgia but undercutting the memoire with savvy, even savage attention paid to the social snobbery that threatened to hold our heroine back. There are in fact two Belles, an old one and a young one, the first dictating her life story to her puppyish biographer, and the second caught in the unfolding act of that life. In the show’s title number, there is a coming together, both ingenious and moving, of these two selves, separated by time but joined by identity.
Belle comes from the Illinois town of Venezuela. Her family lives in Drifters Row, hence she is – cue for a song – on the Other Side of the Tracks from her admirer Noble Eggleston. Shunned by his mother, she resolves to become the Egglestons’ social equal and it is this progress, through a succession of socially endowed lovers, not to mention the Great War and the voyage of the doomed liner SS Gigantic, that powers the narrative. Now as naïve as a Marilyn, now as focused as an Oprah, this confection of aspiring early twentieth century US woman is touchingly portrayed – both of her – by Emma Odell as the younger one and Julie Ross as the older.
Belle’s self-improvement brings her and us into contact with the character, or rather characters (six of them) of the principal male. It’s a knowing humdinger of part, written for a knowing humdinger of a comic actor (Caesar). Here is, in effect, a leading man thrown together from half a dozen outrageous cameos. Its incumbent is invited to steal the show.
The extraordinary Daniel Cane doesn’t exactly turn down this invitation; he could hardly work his way through the gurning grotesques of Val du Val the Gallic chanteur, the geriatric millionaire Mr. Pinchley and the narcissistic princeling Cherney without, shall we say, drawing attention to himself. But the plain fact is that Cane (a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music and soloist at the Stephen Sondheim Doctorate presentation there) is such a virtusoso that the only stealing he does is from the audience’s stock of admiration, and the main beneficiary is none other than the show. Barnstorming.
So, to say the rest of the cast are not overshadowed by him amounts to praise; as does the observation that Odell’s singing is as good as his, as much at home in the registers of intimacy as in those of comic opera. There is a strange rage and anarchy in the outward composure of these numbers. Here is a musical which relishes the genre and its origins while deploring the tricks you have to turn in order to beat the system and get famous. It acknowledges the absolute centrality of wealth to the American dream but seems to demonstrate the patriotism of the socialist.
Hard to bring off such a show without the old-fashioned virtues of variety and discipline. The director Brendan Matthew, also a Royal Academy graduate and soon to be associate director of the Kings Head Theatre, knows this and draws from his talented team a performance of great vigour and rich eccentrcity. Never mind the time-travelling, the journey to the northern extremity of the Victoria Line is worth making.
Little Me by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh. Booking until 31st August 2013
Wednesday 21st August 2013