Laughter in the Rain
Book by Philip Norman
Opera House, Manchester, and touring
New biographical jukebox musical Laughter in the Rain visits Manchester for just this week with the added attraction of the show's subject Neil Sedaka and producer Bill Kenwright in the audience for the opening night.
Told mostly by a young Sedaka directly to the audience in the form of an extended anecdote, the show tells the story of his life from being born to showing some musical talent as a child, getting a scholarship to Juilliard as a promising concert pianist, switching to the dangerous world of rock 'n' roll where he has his first hits, having a lean period in the sixties, moving to England, getting ripped off by his mother's boyfriend who had become his manager and then his renaissance in the seventies on Elton John's Rocket record label.
The story has no real depth but is just about enough to hold the show together, and the chatty, anecdotal style works well to put it all across. We don't see any real suffering, nastiness or confrontation even when bad things happen that could erupt into more dramatic scenes, and some of the stories about how songs were created or how people met seem a little too perfect as anecdotes to be entirely true.
However the show is really about the music, which all comes from an impressive onstage band with the whole cast providing vocals, which all sounds great. The diagetic songswhich is almost all of themwork fine, but when songs are used non-diagetically to integrate with the plot or emotions of the characters they are a little contrived.
As Sedaka, Wayne Smith delivers both the dialogue and the songs confidently and extremely competently, giving enough of the essence of the real Sedaka for the character to work without trying to do an impression of him. He rarely goes off stage and sings almost all of the songs, but puts it all across with gusto and charisma, even if his hands don't seem to coincide with the notes we hear when he is playing the piano.
The other characters are pretty incidental to Sedaka's story but there are some decent performances from the rest of the cast, despite a few wandering accents. Edward Handoll gives a very nice performance as the shy, socially-awkward young poet Howie Greenfield who lives in the same building as the Sedaka family and who becomes Sedaka's lyricist on all of his major, early hits. Julia Farino and Simon Connolly give some very nice performances as Sedaka's mother and father, as does Anna Clayton as his wife and the love of his life Leba.
The rest of the company all play multiple roles, but there are some nice cameos from Kieran Brown as Elton John and Tony Christie, Natalie Hope as Carole King (formerly his school crush Carol Klein) and Carla Freeman as Connie Francis.
Andy Walmsley's set is kept simple with a platform for the band, a small area in front (with a piano, of course) where all the action is played out and some big projection screens behind the musicians which show images relevant to the part of the story being told, often with pictures of the real people that are being played by actors or being spoken about further downstage, which works well. There were some technical issues on press night, with some very late follow spot cues and a sound that was initially finegiving a striking contrast between the songwriters playing around with ideas onstage and the full band striking up in concert modebut which became increasingly muddy in the second half; these will hopefully be cleared up during the run. There was also an inexplicable fifteen-minute delay in starting without explanation or apology, but as soon as Kenwright himself marched to the back of the auditorium it began very quickly.
The show could be said to overplay the positive and avoid dwelling on anything negative about the man and his life and it certainly isn't great drama, but Keith Strachan's and Bill Kenwright's production is slick and lively, Smith's performance is good enough to carry the whole show and there is some great pop music well-played and -sung by an energetic cast and band. Not everyone will see Sedaka himself come onstage and duet with his younger (and much taller) self, and while Sedaka may have been a little over-ambitious at the moment talking about the West End and Broadway, this enjoyable, good-natured production is polished enough to look like a show being groomed for a London run.
Sandra Giorgetti reviewed this production at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley
Reviewer: David Chadderton