“Penguins must sing”
Birds of Paradise is a show that had an ignominiously brief off-Broadway run in 1987 and might well have faded into obscurity were it not for its lyricist and co-book-writer Winnie Holzman going on to have a small measure of success in later writing the book for a show called Wicked… So MKEC Productions have opted to revive the show and give it its belated UK premiere at the Drayton Arms in South Kensington.
And as with a fair few shows that suffer from terrible reputations due to their performance in the harsh commercial reality of musical theatre, it isn’t as bad as all that at all. Set in the world of amateur dramatics, the Harbour Island Players are excited about their new project, a musical version of Chekhov’s The Seagull, and over-excited about the news that a Broadway star (and former local) is coming to watch them rehearse.
But Lawrence Wood is down on his luck and so when he decides he’s going to stay and direct the show for them, his presence stirs up all manner of emotions that have been simmering under the surface of this volatile group. But though this is a terrain that is rich for exploitation, the book doesn’t really do enough to deepen any of the characters beyond their thespian stereotypes and so too little is ever at stake dramatically. It thus comes as little surprise that Holzman and David Evans wrote this whilst at university, still developing their writing talents.
Where Birds of Paradise does capture the interest is musically, Evans providing a suite of fascinating songs that have been unfairly neglected. Musical director Oli Rew reconfigures the score intelligently for this intimate space and director Marc Kelly has cast his company well, selling both solo and group numbers with real conviction. ‘Imagining You’ and ‘Something New’ close the first and second acts respectively with real panache and it is these moments that make you realise why anyone would consider reviving the show. A curiosity then, but one worth investigating.