Desperately Seeking Susan
Music and Lyrics by Blondie, Book and Concept by Peter Michael Marino
Review by Philip Fisher
Peter Michael Marino, who came up with the idea, and his producers must be confident that Desperately Seeking Susan has all that it takes to be a long runner. The West End and Broadway are now used to stage versions of cult movies and Susan Seidelman's 1985 hit featuring Madonna and Rosanna Arquette certainly qualifies.
Inject the music of a much loved icon Blondie, who are still touring to enthusiastic crowds even though their lead singer, now Deborah Harry, has passed her 60th birthday, and the box-office tills (or online computer terminals these days) should keep ringing.
For the first half-hour or so of Angus Jackson's production, there is a concern that even this heady mix of female stars is not enough. Strangely, it takes two consecutive numbers from men to inject the energy that is required and then there is no looking back.
The action in this version is set in New York and New Jersey during Blondie's punk era in 1979. Having taken over a mid-sized theatre, there is not the kind of razzmatazz that one would expect from a blockbuster at Drury Lane but even so, the effects can be dramatic, especially when lighting designer Hugh Vanstone is allowed to liven things up.
Tim Hatley's relatively low-key set has been designed with pacing in mind so that images are largely generated on the back wall which melts from graffiti into New York skylines and as a headline the movie's heart with the band's Parallel Lines album cover. This allows space for the actors and dancers to perform, with props wheeled in and out to create a minimalist effect that allows viewers to use their imagination.
Within this framework, two women take centre stage throughout. Emma Williams, in a complete change from her recent role opposite Bryn Terfel playing sweet Johanna in Sweeney Todd, becomes Madonna in her raunchy pomp and, perhaps as a secondary consideration, the streetwise New Yorker Susan, who is so desperately sought. Williams does well as the sassy beauty who breezes through life joking everyone around including, in a moment of aberration, a bleach blond mobster with a liking for knives.
Her antithesis is Kelly Price's Roberta Glass, an uptight, New Jersey housewife married to unfaithful jacuzzi salesman Gary (Jonathan Wrather). This shrinking violet is such a ditzy blonde (without wishing to stereotype but it is relevant to the plot) that she practically requires lessons in imagination.
A story that is almost worthy of Shakespeare with its mistaken identities and offbeat love affairs ensues after Roberta gets too tied up in the lonely hearts ads and begins to stalk Susan.
Many readers will know the plot and this production follows the movie, albeit simplifying down some of the early scenes so that with swift jump cutting, they are almost like cartoons. It is all preposterous but great fun as the two women swap jackets, lives and men and get thrills, spills and a great laughs even as the murderous hitman blunders his way towards a pair of ancient earrings that they share.
Inevitably, the audience gets its happy ending with the good pairing off in true Shakespearean style, allowing visitors to leave with satisfied smiles. This is guaranteed by a tremendous, sexy encore courtesy of Deborah Harry and the Blondie Crew's music and today's energetic team of singers and dancers.
After the flat start, it takes a classic moment to get things going. That is when Steven Houghton, playing the creepy hitman, sings the entirely appropriate One Way or Another as he begins his chase. Immediately after, Susan's boyfriend Jay (played by Mark McGee) and his punk band give us Hanging on the Telephone in a version that even Debbie Harry would struggle to better. McGee then follows this with a memorable, acoustic Sunday Girl with which the band eventually joins in.
Peter Michael Marino does a fine job of discovering Blondie lyrics that fit and even enhance the storyline. The musical arrangements tend to be a little slower than the originals and the two leading ladies have good voices but are not necessarily perfectly suited to belting out punk. They are at their best in the music from a slightly later period and the one new song written from the show by Deborah Harry and Chris Stein, Moment of Truth. Emma Williams almost has too much colour in her voice, while Kelly Price holds notes in true musical style, so that she deliberately sings off the beat.
On the acting front, Alec Newman who may not sing too well but looks uncannily like Aidan Quinn from the movie, is strong as Dez, the man who gets lumbered with and then falls for Roberta. Many of the plaudits though are stolen by comic performances from Leanne Best playing Gary's kooky, single sister and Steven Serlin as her supremely boring dentist beau.
Overall, this is an enjoyable evening that should sell well with its joint appeal to lovers of the blonde punk icon and the material girl. It also lives on its own merits as an energetic production that works both for the classic story and what is eventually a real homage to two musicians and an era.