The Glenn Miller Story

Bill Kenwright
The Hawth Theatre, Crawley

Tommy Steele

The story of Glenn Miller is well known, mostly from the 1954 film of the same name starring James Stewart, but Miller died aged 40 and here is Tommy Steele, now a 79-year-old, taking on the role. A strange choice maybe, but Steele, the accomplished entertainer, takes it all in his stride, although the stride is becoming a little stiffer than it used to be.

Emerging from mist surrounding the aircraft hanger where Glenn Miller was last seen, Steele is welcomed with cheers and applause from the audience just for being there and being himself, so well-loved is this song-and-dance man. The boy from Bermondsey can still fill a theatre and the audience certainly gets its money’s worth.

There is not a lot of story to tell here, maybe that’s why no one is credited with writing it, and the emphasis is rightly all on the music, with Steele proving that although dance maybe a bit of a challenge the voice is still in great shape and he can move from trombone to song without a hitch. Great breath control.

He begins as narrator giving a synopsis of Miller’s early life, the struggle to achieve his musical ambitions, and his marriage to Helen, and then he goes back in time and becomes Miller, and this is where suspension of disbelief is severely challenged when trying to come to terms with the age difference.

Abigail Jaye is playing Helen—delightful, forceful, vibrant and with a great voice, she can belt out a song or bring tears to your eyes with "At Last", or "Moonlight Serenade"—my personal favourite and composed by Glenn, who, surprisingly didn’t actually write so very much, but concentrated on arrangements and, as musician and bandleader, was looking (or listening) for a special ‘sound’.

He finally found it with the brass section leading the tune, first trying trumpet and then clarinet, creating the big-band sound which is very rarely heard today—could be something to do with musicians wanting to be paid. The fifteen musicians here, some doubling in acting roles, create the sound to perfection, and we’re swept right back to the swing era with "Chattanooga Choo Choo", "Basin Street Blues", "In the Mood" among many others, including a snippet of Gershwin’s dramatic "Rhapsody in Blue".

In England, before taking his now 50-strong band to entertain the troops in France, did he really have the band play on through the middle of a bombing raid? That may have been a myth created by the film, but it still sends shivers down the spine and is re-created very realistically on stage. The last we see of him is walking to the plane taking him to Paris, and he was never seen again.

This, we think, is the end of the show, but not a bit of it. Tommy creates an encore and is in his element really enjoying himself, and we enjoy him, talking to the audience and encouraging them to join in a Glenn Miller sing-a-long. "If you don’t know the words,” he says, “you shouldn’t be here.” It seems everyone did!

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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