jerry and Dale

Cheek to Cheek: Alan Birkitt as Jerry Travers and Charlotte Gooch as Dale Tremont

Top Hat

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

IT is hard to imagine a more elegant musical than this. The Art Deco sets are magnificent, the 200 or so period costumes stunning and Irving Berlin’s music transports you back to Hollywood’s golden age from the opening notes.

Add in sublime dancing and singing, a 12 piece band and wit worthy of a Wilde or a Coward and it’s heaven, you’re in heaven and your heart beats so that you can hardly speak . . . see how easy it is to get carried away in a cloud of nostalgia.

The story, based on the RKO 1935 picture starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, is a simple one of romance and mistaken identity with famous Broadway tap dancer Jerry Travers attempting to woo the gorgeous Dale Tremont a . . . we never did find out what she did apart from wear Italian fashion designer Alberto Beddini’s clothes.

It was a musical comedy vehicle to showcase the dancing talents of the two stars and 80 years on, despite the wonderful sets, cast and music, it still needs talents to showcase, and it gets them in the shape of Alan Burkitt as Jerry and Charlotte Gooch as Dale.

Astaire’s daughter Eva has seen the show and declared that Burkitt has the best feet she has seen since her father . . . need we say more?

He makes tap and dance look so elegant, easy and natural that even people like me, with dyslexic legs, think it can’t be that hard. Everything about him seems relaxed and he even has a singing voice which evokes the sound of the era.

He is matched by Gooch, who sings her bittersweet solo Better Luck Next Time quite beautifully.

Their dancing together is a delight, although perhaps not something you should try at home without a chiropractor standing by, and their dance to Cheek to Cheek is the highlight of the second act – it even emulates the scene in the original film with the feather trim on Dale’s beautiful white Horace and Batesdress gently shedding as she dances.

The show-stopping number though closes the opening act with the signature tune, Top Hat, White Tie and Tails when Travers and the entire ensemble take to the stage in a massed tap extravaganza.

The initial production had Travers emulating Astaire in the film, shooting down the other dancers with his cane. In the film it was iconic, on stage, a mess which has, thankfully, been dropped.

John Conroy as Bates and Clive Hayward as Horace Hardwick

The show has matured, evolved and developed since it was last at the Hippodrome in 2011 on its way to the West End. It was good then and is even better now, deserving its opening night standing ovation.

Just about every song has feet tapping and memories singing along  with the likes of Let’s face the music and dance, I’m putting all my eggs in one basket, Isn’t this a lovely day (to be caught in the rain?) and Wild about you, which are an enduring testament to the song writing talents of Berlin.

There is excellent support from Sebastien Torkia as Italian fashion designer, and torturer of the Queen’s English, Alberto Beddini with his solo-cum-strip Latins Know How a comic gem while Clive Hayward and Rebecca Thornhill are superb as Horace and Madge Hardwick.

Madge is the long suffering wife with a wonderfully sweet manner hiding a neatly barbed tongue, while Horace bumbles along through life as a genial soul not unduly burdened by intellect, with the only mystery being how he managed to become so wealthy.

Both show impeccable timing and a wonderful bent for comedy making even old jokes sound fresh and funny.

And then there is Horace’s manservant Bates played by John Conroy, sent undercover with all the disguise skills of a colour-blind chameleon. Bates has a relative on every continent and each has a homily more bizarre than the next in a wonderful comic performance.

With six strong leads and a wonderful ensemble along with stunning choreography from Bill Deamer, the stage is set, and set beautifully with Hildegard Bechtler’s design and Jon Morrell’s glorious costumes.

A mention too for excellent technicals from Peter Mumford’s lighting to Gareth Owen’s sound.

It is not easy making the distinctive sound of tap proportionately audible over music in a large theatre and Owen has managed it well with, apparently, a leg mic attached to tap shoes.

The orchestra is large for a touring production and it shows in the sound, rich and full under musical director Jae Alexander, who manages to make the music seem both modern yet still evocative of the 1930s.

Director Matthew White, who along with Howard Jacques, adapted the 1935 film for the stage, does the same, bringing a clean, fresh and contemporary feel to a story set firmly in the 1930s. This is as near as it gets to seeing Astaire and Rogers live, not to be missed. To 21-03-14

Roger Clarke

10-03-15

If you want to know more about the original film click here.

Top Hat the Movie

Remaining tour dates  2015: 31 Mar - 11 Apr: Norwich Theatre Royal; 14 - 25 Apr: Canterbury The Marlowe Theatre; 28 Apr - 9 May: Plymouth Theatre Royal; 12 - 23 May: Southampton Mayflower; 27 May - 6 Jun: Dublin Bord Gais Theatre; 16 - 21 Jun: Bromley Churchill Theatre; 24 Jun - 4 Jul: Sunderland Empire Theatre; 7 - 18 Jul: Woking New Victoria Theatre; 21 - 25 Jul: Eastbourne Congress Theatre.

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