Earlier this year the screen-to-stage musical TOP HAT won three Olivier Awards, which I must admit surprised me so I tied up my tap shoes and clacked off to the Aldwych Theatre.
One of the incidental pleasures in going was a rare visit to the Aldwych, one of London's most historically important theatres that has become a dumping ground for long-running screen-to-stage musicals like FAME and DIRTY DANCING, productions I would not be caught dead at. This makes it an obvious fit for TOP HAT but how the ghosts of the Aldwych farceurs and the spectres from it 's time as the original London home of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre must sit in the gods with faces like slapped arses.
Perhaps the most famous of the Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers films, TOP HAT (1935) has retained it's frothy, deliciously frivolous charm down the years. The best Astaire & Rogers films conform to the template of boy meets girl, boy and girl tap dance, boy loses girl, boy and girl do a romantic dance, boy gets girl. While Fred & Ginger break up to make up, they are usually helped and hindered by a comic supporting cast. TOP HAT reunites the stars with their pals from THE GAY DIVORCEE (which I prefer to TOP HAT): Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes with the addition of Helen Broderick.
The scripts might now raise more smiles than laughs but their marvellous performances divert you from this. Sadly this was not the case on stage.
Musical star Jerry has come to London to appear in producer Horace's show but his loud hoofing in Horace's hotel room annoys the neighbour Dale. When she complains Jerry falls hopelessly in love while Dale assumes he is Horace as she has been told who's room it is. When she goes to Venice to model clothes for Italian designer Alberto Beddini, Jerry and Horace follow and who should be there too but Madge, Dale's best friend - and Horace's wife. Of course you cry, Madge is her best friend but has never seen even a picture of her husband! Jerry pursues Dale, Dale thinks he is Horace so makes a play for Beddini - endless romantic complications ensue.
As I said this plot can be sustained on film with practiced comedy performers all kept afloat on the gossamer choreography of Astaire and Hermes Pan. Here, director Matthew White and Howard Jacques' script manages to sustain the action during the first act but by the second act with the switch to Italy fatigue sets in and I found myself caring less and less about the convolutions of the plot as so much of it rested on the supporting cast.
Olivier award winner Jon Morrell's costumes were colourful, Hildegarde Bechtler's set was efficient but boiled down to two flats and a middle revolve and Olivier Award winner Bill Deamer's choreography was smart and inventive but seemed to be aware of itself a little too much. To be honest, it seemed at it's best when delivered by the male members of the cast.
The show came into being as a vehicle for STRICTLY COME DANCING winner Tom Chambers but he had just been replaced by Gavin Lee. Guess what? Gavin Lee wasn't on so we had his understudy Alan Burkitt as Jerry who gave a perfectly fine performance but one totally devoid of star quality which is essential for the role. We all know who has played the role before so you need to Bring It.
The other male performance of any note was from Alex Gaumond as the vain Italian designer Beddini who gave a spark of style to his role but he always seemed to have the air of looking faintly embarrassed - no need to be Alex, you were also one of the few saving graces in LEGALLY BLONDE a few years ago.
Dale was played by American import Kristen Beth Williams who seemed weighed down (probably by the extra name) in the quicksilver role of Dale Tremont. There was also a certain tart quality to her performance which always seemed to jar with the overall whipped cream atmosphere. She did however dance very well.
I have commented before about recent productions I have seen which seem to be cast with under-whelming supporting performers. To be brutally honest, the level of performances in TOP HAT was like a bad am/dram company on a rainy Wednesday in Rhyl. Yes, you Vivien Parry as Madge: a performance of quite rare banality especially when set against the flimsy performance of Clive Hayward as Horace. I am sure it was a comic masterpiece in his dressing-room mirror.
TOP HAT also won the Olivier for Best Musical, it's opposition was the other screen-to-stage musical THE BODYGUARD, a yoof musical called LOSERVILLE and a glorified Tina Turner tribute show SOUL SISTER. Against that line-up I too would have given it to TOP HAT, but quietly and probably wrapped in an old Tesco bag turned inside out.