My One and Only (Chichester) Where's Charley?
(Open Air, Regent's Park)
This is fast becoming an astonishingly, maybe unprecedentedly, rich summer in which to rediscover on this side of the Atlantic the history of the American stage musical. Not only do we have Barbara Cook at the Lyric (reviewed here last week) and the other first lady of Broadway, the astonishing, 91-year-old Kitty Carlisle Hart in concert at Covent Garden (sadly for two nights only), but we also have the first-ever British staging of the Gershwins' My One and Only at Chichester; the first production over here in 40 years of Frank Loesser's Where's Charley?; and, next week, the first-ever British staging of Kurt Weill's One Touch of Venus, written in 1943 with a book by Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman, the only time that the two great New Yorker humorists ever ventured into the theatre.
All that and My Fair Lady back at Drury Lane, its original London home, for the first time in almost half a century, with the promise of Kiss Me Kate and The Music Man over from New York in the autumn, a new South Pacific at the National for Christmas, and yet another Sondheim anthology, Putting It Together, due into the Minerva at Chichester next month.
So far it is Chichester leading the pack: its staging of the Gershwins' My One and Only is quite simply the best production of a 'lost' American musical I have ever seen in this country, and for I think a surprisingly simple reason. Most Broadway shows come to us initially very soon after the New York staging, and are thus inclined to be slavish copies; but it has been almost 20 years since Twiggy and Tommy Tune played this one for a year in New York, and as a result the present team (notably the director Loveday Ingram, the designer Lez Brotherstone and the choreographer Craig Revel Norwood) has had the total liberty to start again since none of them ever saw the original.
And My One and Only has one of the most complex histories of all Broadway musicals: it was originally written by George and Ira Gershwin for Fred and Adele Astaire as Funny Face in 1927. Thirty years later, with a radically updated book, Fred filmed it with Audrey Hepburn; 30 years later still, the American librettists Peter Stone and Timothy S. Mayer decided to bring the show back to Broadway, but with again such a drastically revised book and score that they changed the title. This was also the first time anyone thought of batching songs from other shows by the same composers into the package, a formula later followed with equal success by Crazy For You.
For various personal and professional reasons, however, Twiggy and Tommy Tune never brought My One and Only over to London, and so now we have it created here by Tim Flavin and Janie Dee as the first all-singing, all-dancing team of musical genius since Tommy and Twiggy or, for that matter, Fred and Ginger or Noel and Gertie. Individually they are hugely talented and together they are just magic, tapping the clouds away and striking up the band in a plot of ludicrous 1920s hilarity about a Lindbergh-like aviator and the cross-Channel swimmer he adores.
But never mind that screwball plot: what matters here are 14 of the greatest songs that George and Ira Gershwin wrote, one entire number not so much danced as splashed in huge stage pools of water, a complete silent movie, and some of the best tap-dancing I have seen in this country. True, the other star of the first Broadway cast was Honi Coles and he is much missed: but in his place we have the wondrous Richard Lloyd King as Mr Magix, and we also get Hilton McRae as the brilliantly sinister Prince Nikki, in a score now so rich that 'Funny Face' can be given away to two incidental characters.
As they say in the show, this is just a love story for two human beings who have forgiven each other for being human, but along the way it turns into a sassy, sophisticated, satirical singalong which is also the greatest summer musical treat we have had for a decade or more. If there is any justice (which in the theatre there almost never is), My One and Only deserves a couple of years at least in the West End.
At the Open Air in Regent's Park, the news on Where's Charley? is, alas, not so good. This, back in 1948, was the first musical I ever saw as a child, and the memory of Ray Bolger in the title role is indelible half a century later. Frank Loesser's first Broadway score, predating Guys and Dolls, was a reasonably loyal musical version of the age-old Oxford undergraduate farce Charley's Aunt, and the only British production until now has been a 1958 West End version starring a wildly miscast Norman Wisdom.
Ian Talbot's new production in the Park is lively enough, but desperately undercast, with a deeply uncharismatic Cameron Blakely in the title role; it would be unfair to expect anyone to live up to Bolger, but the role does need a leading man of the Jim Dale/Michael Crawford variety, and without that the whole show is inclined to fall apart, despite two of the greatest love songs (Wake A Miracle' and `Once In Love With Amy') that Loesser ever wrote.