Note - this review caries a shameless plug tag as the production features amongst its cast Andrew Pugsley who in addition to being my friend is also one of my colleagues on this site.
Last Thursday night I was lucky enough to attend the world premiere of a superb new musical: Flying Without Wings. It is an epic story of a man, Captain Microwave (Pugsley), who can boil liquids with a single glance and the love he shares with a three eyed superheroine Tara (Sarah-Louise Young). It is the story of their epic confrontation with Dr Disco (a delightfully evil Philip Pellew) atop New York's iconic Chrysler building. It is a genre spanning masterpiece that encompasses styles as disparate as Kurt Weill and Lady Gaga. It is the only place you will learn the truth about Kryptonite. At this point, I would be urging you to make haste to see it, but you cannot. For while last Thursday was the premiere, it was also the last ever performance. No, this is not some hideously unfair result of arts funding evaporating in a recession, rather it is the raison d'etre of Showstopper, to improvise a musical, from your suggestions, before your very eyes, in a little over an hour; and it is glorious!
The conceit is simply enough, the phone (glowing red, in best bat style) goes and at the other end Cameron (Mackintosh, we are doubtless left to suppose and chuckle) delivers his uncompromising verdict on the tape of the musical he has just received. The director has but one option: he must invent a new musical in the next hour or lose his funding and he needs the help of the audience to do it. Title, theme, not to mention a variety of musical styles, all come from the audience.
Now, clearly such an endeavour is highly dependent on the quality of the suggestions emanating from the audience. Fortunately, on this occasion they were spoilt for choice - we could have easily ended up with the story of a mission to mars and the title might have been Capes in the Mist (I actually preferred this to Flying Without Wings but clearly I didn't cheer loudly enough). The director (Sean McCann) was good at ensuring the useless suggestions fell by the wayside, not to mention pausing the action every now and then to nurture and steer things, adding icing to the cake and throwing curve balls to the other performers.
Which begs the question of just how improvised it all is? Very, I am assured by Mr Pugsley - the limit of discussion back stage is more or less "Who are you?.... Who am I?". Indeed, given their mics are left on the whole time, since they never know when a voiceover from the wings might come in handy, there is little room for anything else. Of course, a tremendous amount of rehearsal time goes in, which is why when the director tells them to sing a dazzling number in the manner of Rogers and Hammerstein they can. They apparently do whole weeks of practising Sondheim or G&S or whomever. Even so, I'm reliably informed that Weill had never come up before, nor, for that matter, Lady Gaga; not that you would have guessed. To say these are a talented and quick thinking bunch of people would seem to be an understatement of epic proportions. They're also good singers and in possession of some very strong comic timing.
One must also pay tribute to the versatility of the musicians: Duncan Walsh-Atkins (Keyboard and MD) and Chris Ash (sax and clarinet) who, seemingly effortlessly, produce whatever musical style is called for. And, unlike the actors, get no rest.
Flying Without Wings had a nicely b-list superhero element to it - especially in Dr Disco's henchman Marmalade (Ruth Bratt), whose sole power was to produce the preserve after which she was named, enabling her to summon a swam of bees to menace Microwave and Tara as they took a romantic stroll. Ditto school janitor Jenkins (Adam Meggido) "You don't look a day older," says Captain Microwave when meeting him at the school reunion which sets the scene, to which the reply is "my only superpower". Best of all, though, was the magnificent revelation that Kryptonite was, in fact, a placebo! I should probably have said spoiler alert there, but since you can't ever go and see it.....
If we're going to split hairs, it must be noted there were a few loose ends in the plot: what did become of Microwave's accountant first wife and what was under Tara's eyepatch? That said, in a moment of comic genius she removed it to reveal a second patch. But so much fun was had, nitpicking the little details seem churlish. The story hung together more than well enough.
Of course, I'm biased, but put it this way: while I'd definitely go to see a friend's show once out of obligation, this I will be going back to, not least because it will be a whole other story! I highly recommend you do the same.