Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Tonight's the Night: the Rod Stewart Musical

Book by Ben Elton
Phil McIntyre Entertainments, Arnold Steel and Ambassador Theatre Group
The Palace Theatre, Manchester

Ben Heathcoate as Stu and Michael McKell as Stoner Credit: Alastair Muir
Jade Ewen as Dee Dee Credit: Alastair Muir
Tonight's the Night Ensemble Credit: Alastair Muir

Stuart is a shy, sensitive nerd, who works in a Detroit garage. He’s bullied by the boss and has a thing for Mary, who also works there. Mary has a thing for Stu, too. She’d be glad to go out with him, if only he could pluck up the courage to ask her. What Stuart needs is to be more like his hero, Rod Stewart. In fact, he rashly observes, to be more like Rod, ‘I’d sell my soul to the devil.’ Be careful what you wish for, Stu...

Tonight’s the Night is a Faustian comedy set to the music of Rod Stewart. Many of tonight’s audience are (like this reviewer) of the Tartan crooner’s (sorry, Tartan rocker’s) generation. Just like the millions who have coughed up to see Mamma Mia, more than a decent, funny, heart-warming story, this crowd wants the songs and the chance to sway together and sing along to those songs.

Musical director, Griff Johnson sometimes loses sight of this fundamental fact, providing arrangements of the Stewart back catalogue that are often innovative and challenging, but pay too little attention to this key need of any audience who have paid to see what is, at base, a big production tribute show.

Denise Ranger’s choreography opens promisingly. The “Gasoline Alley” routine is a little crowded but packed with neat flourishes and impressive use of props. From then on, the emphasis is on the raunchy—this is founded on the output of the man who wrote “Hot Legs”, “D’ya Think I’m Sexy” and the show’s title track, so who could argue?

Not enough thought, however, has gone into the range of routines and settings, so that, after the opening number, only “You Wear It Well” really jangles, making clever use of a line-dancing routine in a cowboy bar—though, how many of those (Confederate flags and all) are to be found serving the descendants of Scandinavians in Minnesota, I leave you to guess...

In story terms, Ben Elton’s script is functional rather than inspired. Why not send Stuart’s band on a European tour to give the barest of plot set up to the finale’s “Sailing”? Instead, it is arbitrarily tacked on the end of the show with no attempt at rationale. That said, it is in “Sailing” (get your paper hat ready) that the show at last takes the audience where it wants to be—on its feet, arms aloft, swaying and singing along. There’s a life lesson, here. Sometimes, even in showbiz, you get it without having to earn it.

Elton, as you might imagine, does provide some fine one-liners and, in Stoner (played with endearing, swaggering sleaze by Michael McKell) he gives us one memorable character. McKell’s Stoner is the archetypal raddled but charming ageing rocker; one part Jagger, one part Osbourne, one part Noel Fielding, shaken and stirred—a very winning cocktail.

Musically, the show and its stars are at their best in the quieter moments, with lovely performances from Jade Ewen (as Dee Dee) and Andy Rees (Rocky). Tiffany Graves holds her own both as Satan and Baby Jane (the knowing rock promoter). Ben Heathcote as Stuart copes well with the singing challenges, but lacks the stage presence to drive home a thinly written role. Whenever he and McKell are on stage together, there is only one winner.

Jenna Lee-James as Mary (Stu’s true love) provides the finest musical moment of the evening, with a performance of “Reason to Believe” which sends an emotional chill through the auditorium. Imagine what she, and the others might do with a decent story and decent roles...

Rock history has it that, in the early hours of one morning in January 1964, at Twickenham railway station, Long John Baldry heard a drunken young man playing harmonica to the night air from the platform opposite. “Young man,” says Baldry, “wanna join my band?”

Half a century later, we have Tonight’s the Night. I wonder what young Rod, harmonica and all, would make of it?

The audience cheered it to the rafters.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson