“What are you going to do, tap dance me to death?”
Burlesque is a new musical with book and lyrics written by Adam Meggido and Roy Smiles and music by Meggido as well. Adam Meggido might well be a recognisable face as he is part of the Showstopper! ensemble, a team that improvise a new musical from scratch every night, but he finally decided to write one down and over several years, Burlesque has developed into its current format at the Jermyn Street Theatre where it now has its world premiere. Set in 1952 America, it looks at how the culture of fear encouraged by McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch-hunts impacted on the lives of a set of performers in a burlesque show.
At the heart of the story is Johnny Reno, a comic trying to keep his head down after being black-listed due to his father’s connections and his unwillingness to co-operate with the FBI. His girlfriend, one of the dancers, has just announced she’s pregnant, his comedy partner Rags is hitting the bottle way too hard and the lusty theatre owner Freddie is struggling to find financial backers whilst being distracted by one of his new recruits. With the pressure on him increasing on all sides in an increasingly paranoid society, Johnny is forced to decide what, and who, is most important to him.
This it does in a tautly effective second half which focuses in on this dilemma: Jon-Paul Hevey (last year’s runner-up in my best actor in a musical category) counterpointing a strong tormented dramatic performance with some brilliant vaudevillian turns ‘on-stage’ which are brimming with charisma (and on this night, some effortless extemporising around a wayward moustache) with Chris Holland as his buddy Rags offering melancholy depth and Alicia Davies’ worldly-wise Honey by his side. It is just that the show takes a while to get to the point where this emerges as the central storyline: the first half is dominated by a whirl of scene-setting with each and every one of the supporting players getting the hint of a story. It isn’t abundantly clear where the attention, or our sympathies, should lie, especially as the early tone here is overly comedic.
There’s a more traditional interpretation of the term ‘Burlesque’ in the show Burlesque, more akin to variety show than the Dita von Teese school (although Victoria Serra does provide one such number as a naughty Red Riding Hood). And the book reflects this with a rather nostalgic vein of humour, comfortable rather than razor-sharp, which plays to the strengths of (real-life husband and wife) Linal Haft’s never-without-a-quick-reply Freddie and Buster Skeggs’ long-suffering Lula, who’s been looking after the girls for longer than she cares to remember, their dry wit and easy repartee is heaps of fun.
The eclectic nature of the music, and in particular the way that music is used in the show, also raises some questions. Some numbers come as part of the routines performed by characters in the theatre, other comedy songs – even a patter song in one case – just sit as part of the show; there are plenty of regular musical theatre story songs, but the second half sees the introduction of a chorus who give voice to Johnny’s troubled mind. Meggido is clearly alive to the manifold ways in which music can work in a musical – some of the songs here really are excellent – but could have perhaps benefitted from not utilising quite so many of them in the same show. The material sometimes stretches the capabilities of the singers a bit too far and there’s not always the necessary focus on getting everything dead right: poor diction in a couple of places muffled the lyrics and the impact of the finale is muffled somewhat by falling awkwardly between the touching intimacy of the moment and the desire to provide a show-stopping encore.
Martin Thomas’s clever design with its mini proscenium arch allows us to see life on both sides of the curtain at the Palace and Meggido’s direction demonstrates a strong understanding of working with limited space. And the ambition in his and Smiles’ writing is truly admirable, not only in creating a piece of new musical theatre in these straitened times but reaching to tell a story of how politics impacts the individual. That that ambition sometimes over-reaches itself should not obscure the promise contained within.