Classy elegance on tap

Top Hat

Wolverhampton Grand

*****

ITS three years since Top Hat passed through the Midlands on its way to the West End and in the meantime, like a fine wine, it has blossomed and come of age.

It is still elegant, sophisticated, funny and has the glorious songs of Irving Berlin, but the dancing of Alan Burkitt just lifts the entire show into another league.

He plays Jerry Travers, the part played by Fred Astaire in the 1935 RKO film, and like Astaire he has that effortless economy of movement as he flows across the stage that makes tap and dancing seem the most natural thing in the world. He makes everything look so relaxed and easy.

And in Charlotte Gooch as Dale Tremont, he has a perfect partner in a show that depends upon the stage chemistry between them and their dances together – after all the film on which the show is based, was a pleasant enough tale but in reality was merely a vehicle to showcase the talents of new dance stars Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Burkitt and Gooch, who played the roles in the West End, are the dance stars but take nothing away from a fine ensemble of 24 playing everything from hotel managers to florists, bell boys to doormen who filled the stage with some superb dancing.

Our love-struck couple also showed fine voices – songs have to be sung as well as danced – and they harmonised well together. Burkitt, in particular, has a remarkable sort of period voice, one that could have come straight from a 1930’s RKO musical.

There is also some fine support, particularly from warring couple Horace and Madge Hardwick played by Clive Haywood, again from the West End cast, and Rebecca Thornhill.

Both have parts littered with snappy one liners that depend entirely on their immaculate timing. Then there is their man, or butler, or whatever Bates is. He played by John Conroy and is a master of disguise in the loosest sense of the word . . . and an expert in obfuscation; and then we hava de Italiano dress designer Alberto Beddini played by Sebastien Torkia.

Torkia is clearly enjoying himself as the dapper couturier with fractured English and we even get a strip down to his . . .  short Johns I suppose, with Alberto’s big number Latins know how.

The story is simple. Obscenely rich Horacjerry and Dalee brings Broadway star Jerry over to star in the show he is producing in the West End and in the hotel Jerry meets Dale, who we discover is a friend of Madge. Jerry and Dale fall for each other but then after a series of unfortunate events Dale thinks Jerry is Horace so is really married and thus playing away from home.

Everyone ends up in Venice for the day, as you do, to visit Madge, confusion grows, true love has to stumble its way along a rocky path but, rest assured, it all sorts itself out and everyone lives happily ever after, except Alberto who finds the foot is on the other boot as an Italian friend of mine genuinely used to say. But I am sure he will get over it as the frock orders come flooding in.

Facing the music and dancing: Alan Burkitt as Jerry and Charlotte Gooch as Dale

Then there are the other stars of the show, Irving Berlin’s timeless classics from the American songbook, songs such as Puttin’ on the Ritz, I’m putting all my eggs in one basket, Top hat, white tie and tails, Cheek to cheek. Isn’t this a lovely day (to be caught in the rain?), the bittersweet Better luck next time and Let’s face the music and dance. All wonderful stuff.

Such good songs need a good orchestra and enthusiastic conductor and musical director Jae Alexander brought the best out of his 11 strong charges, large for a touring show, who sounded bigger than their number.

The setting by Hildegard Bechtler is a masterclass in simple, elegant design with a series of Art Deco sets which change in an instant from hotel lobbies to suites, to Venice Lido, to park to ballroom to . . . whatever is needed while Peter Mumford’s lighting is subtle, simple and effective.

And as for the costumes . . . Albert could learn much from Jon Morrell who has produced some stunning period dresses, gowns and slick suits, even down to 1930’s bathing suits while Bill Deamer’s choreography is faultless. At times he has all 24 ensemble and the two stars on stage, all dancing at once and it always looks ordered and in control.

Matthew White’s direction keeps everything moving along at a cracking pace and even a short delay because of a technical hitch with a jammed panel in a scene change hardly halted the momentum. It is a long show at two hours 40 minutes but the time just flies by.

There have been a few changes, as you would expect, shows evolve, find their own rhythms and grow into themselves, for example, on its way to the West End the big closing number of Act1, Top hat, white tie and tails has been revamped.

This is one of Astaire’s most famous dance sequences on film and, in truth, the earlier version looked a bit of a mess with a cluttered stage and the famous sequence of Astaire shooting down a long line of top hatted and tailed dancers with his cane reduced to Jerry shooting into a mob. It needed a much bigger stage than theatres could provide to work successfully.

The number has been tidied, cleaned up, the shooting sequence has gone and the dance number has given over to the talents of Burkitt and the male ensemble to produce a show stopping finale which looks classy rather than messy. And classy perhaps describes the whole show.

If you leave without a smile on your face and a tune in your head, ask someone to check your pulse, just in case. This is guaranteed feel-good theatre, witty, charming, fun and with dancing to die for.

To 01-11-14

Roger Clarke

21-10-14

Top Hat returns to the Midlands in 2015 at Birmingham Hippodrome from 10-21 March.

 

 

And taking a second view

****

THIS magical musical takes audiences back to the great days of movie stars Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with the accent on glamour and fun.

It’s one of those shows that send you home with a glow, even though the story of love and mistaken identity dates back to the 30s. It fits into the modern era with no problem.

Irving Berlin’s music and lyrics span the years, with such memorable numbers as Top Hat, White Tie and Tails, Puttin’ on the Ritz, Cheek to Cheek, Let’s Face the Music and Dance and Isn’t it a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain.

And then there’s the tap dancing! Alan Burkitt is superb as Broadway star Jerry Travers (Astaire’s role) and it’s no surprise to learn that his dazzling feet earned him special praise from none other than Fred’s daughter Ava who saw the show in London.

Burkitt even has a voice that suits the period of Top Hat, and he has a terrific partner in the gorgeous Charlotte Gooch, playing Dale Tremont who falls for the star before the romance stalls when she thinks he is a married man.

The dancing of the couple and the entire ensemble is a sheer delight, while the 200-plus costumes are excellent and the sets impressive – despite a couple of hiccups on opening night when one of the huge sliding doors jammed, causing an eight-minute pause, and a clever scene when a plane glides across the Grand Canal scene in Venice was missed out.

Slick comedy is provided by John Conroy (Bates the butler) and Sebastien Torkia (dress designer Alberto Beddin). To 01-11-14

Paul Marston 

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