Just don’t step on those shoes

Jim and Sylvia

Shaun Williamson as Jim and Mica Paris as Sylvia

Love Me Tender

The New Alexandra Theatre

****

LOVE ME Tender is another sojourn into jukebox musicals, this time taking the path forged by the likes of Mama Mia (Abba) and We Will Rock You (Queen), weaving a story round the songs of a single artist – in this case Elvis.

And the result is a sort of Elvis does Footloose as our hero Chad – guitar, leather jacket, quiff, overactive pelvis, curling lip etc – is released from jail – no prizes for guessing the show opens with Jailhouse Rock – and arrives in some backwater in small town America where pretty much every bit of enjoyment is banned apart from breathing – and that allowed only if it is not too heavy.

The draconian laws of no loud music, public necking or tight pants are enforced by bull horn toting Mayor Matilda Hyde, a puritanical, white supremacist played beautifully for laughs by West Bromwich born Siân Reeves, who played villain Sally Spode in Emmerdale.

Chad, played with Fonz-like cool with a nice, toungue in cheek humour by Ben Lewis, needs repairs to his motorcycle and when the town’s grease monkey mechanic Natalie, played by Laura Tebbutt, sees our hero she falls gasket over piston for him.

Love at first sight – except Chad’s first sight moment comes when he sees Miss Sandra, played by Kate Tydman, owner of the town museum.

Meanwhile nerdy trainee dentist Dennis, played with spot on comic timing by Mark Anderson, who is iChad and Natalien love with Natalie, is invited to be Chad’s sidekick so Natalie decides she too will be one of the boys to be close to Chad and dresses as a man, Ed,  – except Miss Sandra falls for him . . . her . . . Ed and it becomes more involved when Chad also falls for . . . Ed

Then, to complicate matters further Afro-American Sylvia, played by soul singer Mica Paris, who runs the local honky-tonk, has the hots for Jim played by Shaun Williamson, Barry Evans in EastEnders who was last seen in the Midlands struggling with the concept of identical twins as gangster Charlie Clench in One Man, Two Guvnors.

Following that dream: Natalie, played by Laura Tebbutt and Ben Lewis as Chad

Charlie meanwhile falls for Miss Sandra to complete a rather complex ménage à . . .six, or sept even, if you count Natalie’s cross dressing.

So thank heavens for Lorraine, daughter of Sylvia, played by Aretha Ayeh, and Dean, son of the puritanical mayor, played by Felix Mosse, who actually fall for each other with no complications . . . if you ignore a puritanical, white supremacist mother.

Throw in Sherriff Earl, a man of few words played by Chris Howell, who has the hots for . . . you starting to get the picture. Everyone falls for someone in a circle of unreciprocated passion and the job of writer Joe Dipietro is to sort it all out in time for the rousing finale with Burning Love.

The plot is loosely based on Twelfth Night with a hint of Romeo and Juliet thrown in, not that you need to know either play to follow what is a pleasant enough storyline which avoids stretching imagination or intellect too far.

The occasional racial undertones do not always sit comfortably and I wasn’t too sure about the red hooded Klan chorus line although I suppose, probably unintentionally, it did echo Presley’s own racial controversies.

He was a white star at a time when segregation and a colour bar was the norm in many Southern states, including his home state of Mississippi, and he was seen by some whites as some sort of race traitor by championing black music and causes, and by some blacks for finding the huge success from black inspired music that was largely deniThe Mayored to black artists at the time

Meanwhile back at the lovefest, the other star of the show, as far as the audience was concerned, was the music and with 758 songs recorded by Elvis in a career that ran from 1953 to 1977, there was plenty of choice.

We had the likes of Heartbreak Hotel, One Night with You, It’s Now or Never, Blue Suede Shoes, with several warnings not to step on them, All Shook Up, Can’t Help Falling in Love and the eponymous Love Me Tender.

Siân Reeves as Mayor Matilda Hyde with Chris Howell bringing up the rear as Sherriff Earl

If I can dream, written by Walter Earl Brown, was inspired by Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech, and was a rather poignant moment for Dean and Lorraine while Natalie, left alone gives a lovely, ballad tempo version of Fools Fall in Love, originally a Drifters track, by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

A strength of the show is the quality of singing from all the leads. Paris we all know about and her There’s Always Me is a highlight  but Shaun Williamson comes in with a fine baritone, Lewis has the voice for rock and little Aretha Ayeh can really belt out a song while Nerdy Dennis, training to be a dentist, throws off the shackles in It hurts me.

Throwing off more than shackles when she removes the glasses and lets her hair down is Miss Sandra. Her Let Yourself Go is not so much a seduction as a sexual battering into submission, lovely stuff.

It is billed as the new musical, which is not strictly true, although it is certainly a new title having started life on Broadway as All Shook Up in 2005 where it ran for almost seven months, going on a US tour the following year and arriving in Britain, in a new production, with a new name, earlier this summer.

Some songs fit in well, others are forced in there, and the script is a bit predicatable, but, hey, this never set out to be West Side Story or Les Miserables, the whole thing has a fresh, lively feel and is a fun musical, with a clever set from Morgan Large and some nice touches, such as the saloon doors and museum statue, from director and choreographer Karen Bruce who keeps everything moving along at a cracking pace – even throwing in a moving bus . . . sort of. The result is an entertaining evening with plenty of feelgood factor to send any audience home with a smile and a headful of songs. To Saturday, 29 August.

Roger Clarke

24-08-15 

 

Two for the show

****

ELVIS Presley may have left the building, but the King’s rock ‘n’ roll music is still pulling in the fans and entertaining new audiences.

His songs inspired this musical, set in the 1950s, and the first night audience certainly enjoyed the action and responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Although the musical may not have the strongest story, it is warm-hearted and amusing and not just an excuse to churn out a succession of Elvis hits.

There are 25 of them woven into the show, and they are cleverly used during the action which opens with guitar-strumming Chad leaving prison, inevitably to the rousing Jailhouse Rock.

Ben Lewis is superb as the ex-con who rides his motorbike into a one-horse town in the American mid-west and soon begins to transform the strict code of conduct demanded by the puritan, loud-hailer-toting Mayor, Matilda Hyde, played with delightful comic timing by West Bromwich born Sian Reeves.

The entire cast have excellent voices, and can dance, but one of the highlights comes with award-winning Mica Paris, playing bar owner Sylvia, singing There’s Always Me. What a voice!

Shaun Williamson, best known as Barry from EastEnders, seems able to turn his hand to anything in his acting career, and he is a hoot as garage owner Jim, the middle-aged widower looking for love, and Laura Tebbutt sparkles as his tomboy daughter Natalie, who takes a shine to Chad.

Strong contributions, too, from Mark Anderson as the geeky Dennis and Kate Tydman (Miss Sandra).

Karen Bruce is director and choreographer of a lively show which runs to Saturday.

Paul Marston

24-08-15 

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