Crazy for You

Music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, book by Ken Ludwig (a co-conception with Mike Ockrent)

Open Air, Regent’s Park

(2011)

Review by John Thaxter

Just as the lights came up on an opening scene of Broadway glitter, down came the rain on Regent’s Park.

The unofficial tradition is that Open Air first nights are almost never wet, but this time the audience happily donned flimsy coveralls while crew and techies struggled with mops to make the stage safe and dry for the spectacular dance routines to follow.

Happily the weather then delivered a mild, dry night, while a terrific cast of twenty-four young singers and hoofers delivered an even brighter, more enjoyable show than London deserved, given the off-stage blaze-krieg of burglary breaking out all over town.

As for the show: Crazy for You was first a gleam in the eyes of the late, great Mike Ockrent and his playwright colleague Ken Ludwig. Offered the chance to revive the Gershwin hit musical comedy Girl Crazy, they decided instead to rewrite the book, plus a new score culling 14 classic Gershwin numbers from other shows to match their new plot.

The result was acclaimed as a dazzling return to form for the 1930s musical comedy tradition, winning both a Tony and an Olivier for the New York and London productions, both brilliantly staged by Ockrent.

Their hero Bobby was now an aspiring stage dancer, played here by the astonishingly agile American hoofer Sean Palmer, despatched by his domineering banker mother to Badrock, Nevada, to foreclose on the old Gaiety Theatre. Naturally he falls for the theatre-owner’s daughter Polly and, to impress her, pretends to be the great impresario Zangler, importing a dozen chorus girls from his Follies ‘to put on a show, right here’ in the derelict clapboard theatre.

And this is the moment when Timothy Sheader’s new vision takes off as these gorgeously leggy girls make their entrance via the side aisles, stepping their way on stage to the strains of Gershwin’s Stairway to Paradise. After that his production never puts a dancing foot wrong, all the way to the romantic conclusion with a big number celebration of Girl Crazy’s original hit melody, Embraceable You, as the trees light up and magic is all around.

Here I must interpose my slight worry about the musical treatment There are now two credits for the score: George Gershwin of course, but also Chris Egan as orchestrator, whose rich new take on harmony and phrasing may give a fresh sound to the old familiar Gershwin Songbook. But since this show is meant as a loving throwback to the Thirties I kept wishing he’d left well alone

However, the reward is that when Clare Foster as Polly stands alone centre stage, her perfectly phrased rendering and lovely light soprano make her solo, Someone to Watch Over Me, the song I shall always remember as the true highlight of the evening, alongside her equally touching Not For Me.

I might also add that the show calls for more diversity in the many dance routines than could be created by the combined inventive efforts of choreographer Stephen Mear and dance arranger Gareth Valentine, although, when inspiration sparks, their intentions are carried off with glorious aplomb by the whole cast, notably in the extended I Got Rhythm sequence that brings the first half to a close.

The second act has more comedy than the first. The stand-out is a clever mirror image routine as the real Zangler, played by David Burt, and Bobby’s cunning imitation of the great man, meet in a perfectly synchonised drunk scene.

I also enjoyed the matching of Kim Medcalf’s best dressed, wicked Naughty Baby from New York who, losing Bobby to Polly, then wins the heart of Michael McKell’s straight-faced sheriff of Deadrock; not to mention an hilarious British number Stiff Upper Lip, led with Cowardian verve by Samuel Holmes as Eugene Fodor - the Guide book author on safari in Nevada.

Perfect summer entertainment.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production on its transfer to the Novello Theatre