Much of the attention on London fringe musicals goes to the pocket powerhouses south of the river like the Union and the Landor but some of the most exciting productions are to be found above a pub in Highgate. Under John and Katie Plews’ artistic directorship, they have regularly secured the rights to host the first London fringe productions of such massive shows like Buddy and Guys and Dolls and have done so to great acclaim. And they’ve done it once again by putting on the fringe premiere of Gershwin songbook musical Crazy For You, last seen here at the Open Air Theatre and then the West End.
Although based on the Gershwin production Girl Crazy, this is a relatively new show that was reconceived to feature more gems from the Gershwin back catalogue. Ken Ludwig’s book is a frothily light thing, a boy and a girl from different worlds fall for each other even though his family bank is about to close down her family business, including a theatre, and the only way to save the day and any chance of love is to put on a show. It’s silly but charming, wit and warmth are the order of the day and John Plews’ production never loses sight of that.
Jay Rincon (recently a ghostly presence in Steel Pier) is excellent as Bobby Childs, who has to carry much of the show on his lithe shoulders. He brings a gorgeously endearing goofy charm to his leading man which really opens up the heart of the show and he’s thoroughly engaging throughout. Ceili O’Connor’s Polly doesn’t quite have the same breadth of geniality though meaning their relationship never quite catches fire as it ought, O’Connor could afford to bring in a greater note of sweetness to her portrayal to balance the feistiness.
But the pair sound great together and dance beautifully. Grant Murphy’s choreography really is superb from start to finish, pushing at the boundaries of what an ensemble of 12 can do on a narrow traverse stage with a breath-taking verve – the act one closer of ‘I Got Rhythm’ has to be seen to be believed – and a clever mix of classic and contemporary moves ensuring it feels period-appropriate yet simultaneously fresh. He’s alive to the opportunities of working in such an intimate space and frequently highlights the percussive musicality of tap-dancing to great effect.
And the ensemble around the leads are huge amounts of fun. Plews’ idea of two trios split by gender works wonderfully: Sara Morley, Georgie Burdett and Becky Bassett make a vivacious set of showgirls and Ricky Morrell, Simon Ouldred and Tom Pepper an appealing group of cowpokes and both serve the production well in terms of the heavy lifting of the set changes and also dancing up a storm. Natalie Lipin is excellent as Irene, the it girl who is mellowed out by country living and James Wolstenholme’s Lank and Anthony Williamson and Tamsin Dowsett shine as a double double act, Dowsett particularly impressing as an actress of considerable convincing range.
So whilst the story may be a little light, there is nothing but fierce commitment on the stage of the Gatehouse and it makes for great uplifting viewing. And to the music of some of the greatest songs ever written – played excellently by Oliver-John Ruthven’s band – you’d be crazy to miss out on this show.