Wednesday 18 April 2012

Babes in Arms at The Union, or A Show to Make You Smile

Note: This is a review of the first preview on Wednesday 18 April. Press Night is Friday 20th April.

Note: This review carries a shameless plugs tag because the Music Director was a member of my old Edinburgh theatre society, though after I had left.

I booked for this show with a mixture of hope and anxiety. I previously saw Babes in Arms in the magnificent 2007 production (as an aside it is an indication of the flaws of the West End that the Chichester Singin' in the Rain was transferred there and Babes was not). My more observant readers may have noticed that I am notoriously picky, and I have a theory that the second time you see a show when the first time you were knocked out presents particular challenges. The novelty has worn off, and you have a strong memory against which to compare the new team. I'm delighted therefore to be able to report that this ensemble completely won me over. Yes there are a few rough edges. Yes a few voices are still settling into their roles. But there are some standout performances already, and if you don't come out of the theatre whistling some of the many fine tunes and smiling broadly then you're clearly even more cummudgeonly than me and there is no help for you.

For those of you unfamiliar with this show it's about a group of youngsters (I think the idea is that most of them are late teens, with Val slightly older, and Bunny older again) who are working as something approaching slave labour in a decaying theatre in Cape Cod. While preparing to put on an impressively ghastly new play The Deep North they are secretly rehearsing the review Valentine (James Lacey) has written. Incidentally, those who saw the Chichester version will probably suffer some slight confusion as this is not the same. However the big questions are unchanged. Will they succeed in putting on the show with the bigshot producer in the audience? Will the various love traumas resolve themselves by final curtain? Well this is a 1930s musical, so the answers should be fairly obvious, but it's so lovingly done that the occasionally slightly rickerty plot doesn't matter. Moreover the plot is supported by a witty George Oppenheimer book (I especially enjoyed the running gag about the maid, not to mention the ghastly dialogue of The Deep North) and a whole string of Rodgers & Hart's finest numbers including I Wish I Were in Love Again, My Funny Valentine, Where or When and The Lady is a Tramp.

Although all the main parts are well taken the standout performers for me were Jenny Perry as Bunny and Catriona Mackenzie as Susie. Perry has unquestionably the strongest voice in the company and is excellent in The Lady is a Tramp. But she also has a great line in quirky expressions, the slight twist to the mouth or the raised eyebrow. Mackenzie doesn't yet sound completely comfortable vocally, but she makes up for this with great character and presence, particularly in the second act when everybody began to seem more settled, and she was really moving in the reprise of My Funny Valentine. They and the other principles are well supported by an excellent ensemble who as in Bells are Ringing deliver more choreography than you would have thought the space could support (for which credit goes to Lizzi Gee). I also worried a bit beforehand when I saw that there was only to be a three piece band, but Musical Director Sam Cable leads his small forces with sufficient panache that I didn't miss the richer sound.

This is a lovingly performed revival of a muscial that deserves to be better known than it is. I may be a Sondheim afficionado, but just occasionally its a joy to see a show where you can rest assured from the beginning that everything's going to end up happily. Well worth catching.

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