Music and moonlight and romance

Top that: style, elegance and a touch of class  from  Summer Strallen and Tom Chambers

Top Hat

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

THE golden age of Hollywood tap dances its way back to life in this sparkling new musical based on the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classic.

Tom Chambers (Holby City, Strictly Come Dancing winner) and West End star Summer Strallen have the unenviable task of recreating the roles played in their prime by the greatest dance duo of all time. It is an impossible task but they come out of it with the audience smiling happily and tapping their feet and you can’t ask for more than that.

The 1935 film, the fourth of the ten starring the pair, is regarded as the best of the nine they made for RKO and was the first written specifically for them with music by the legendary Irving Berlin.

It had just five numbers so another 10 have been added from the 1,500-strong Berlin catalogue which means classics such as Let’s Face the Music and Dance, the funny How Can I change My Luck and the poignant Better Luck Next Time have been included. The latter is the bittersweet Judy Garland number from Easter Parade, sung by Miss Strallen, who has a beautiful voice.

The plot is fluffy and thin as a supermodel on a diet, but that hardly matters. The film was merely a vehicle for Fred and Ginger to show off their dancing skills.

That is what the audience wanted. They had the likes of Jimmy Cagney for action and drama, Fred and Ginger were moonlight and music and love and romance as Berlin might have put it.

Could you keep the dancing down, a lady is trying to sleep complains Summer Strallen's Dale Tremont as Jerry hoofs on the floor above

This fabulous stage version has even more song and dance numbers but keeps much of the wit and humour of the original – even if some of the jokes are older than the film – with some fine comedy performances particularly from Martin Ball (Les Miserables, Mary Poppins, Wicked, Mamma Mia) as the rather vague and remarkably rich London impresario Horace Hardwick and his sharp tongued wife Madge played by Vivien Parry (Mamma Mia, Blood Brothers, Fame) who tells us “I came out of my first marriage handsomely. I got custody of his money.”

She also had one of the best lines in the show when Horace tells her she only married him because his father had left him a fortune and she tells him not to be silly. “I would have married you no matter who had left you the money.”  

Ricardo Afonso, who has just left a three year stint as Galileo in We Will Rock You excels with an over the top performance as the flamboyant dress designer Alberto Beddini who could have been flown in straight from a comic opera.

Stephen Boswell as Bates the eccentric butler-cum-manservant to the Hardwicks also shows a nice touch of humour and farce to keep the plot, thin as it is, moving along. 

Set firmly in the 1930s Jerry Travers (Chambers) is a Broadway star brought to London by  Hardwick to star in his West End show.

Jerry is dancing in Horace’s hotel suite and disturbs Dale Tremont (Strallen) in the room below and she storms upstairs to complain whereupon Jerry falls in love at first tap, so to speak, and sets about wooing her. Unfortunately Dale mistakes Jerry for Horace, a misunderstanding that takes the rest of the show to unravel.

Dale goes to Venice where she is modeling gowns for Alberto and visiting her long time friend Madge so Jerry chases her with Horace in tow.

Much grabbing the wrong end of the stick ensues with Horace accused of all manner of infidelity, a wedding that never was and lots of dances before everyone can live happily ever after.

The first half sets the scene with the show gathering momentum as it drifts into farce after the break. 

The legendary ostrich feather dress makes its appearance in Cheek to Cheek

The film was about the dancing and the musical does not disappoint in that respect with a huge cast including a 22 strong dance crew who must have worked long and hard to get such timing and precision. Not a noticeable step wrong all night.

Astaire, assisted by choreographer Hermes Pan, set out to make as much noise as possible with tap, and Bill Deamer, the show's choreographer has kept that in mind.

When more than 20 dancers are tapping in perfect unison, with canes to boot in Top Hat, White Tie and Tails any audience has to sit up and notice, indeed all the ensemble numbers are a joy to watch and listen to - a tribute to the amount of work that has gone in there.

The show has also not made the mistake of trying to do a sort of dance karaoke of the film. They have kept the style and fashion of the times but not tried to copy the routines step for step. There was only one Fred and Ginger and this is Tom and Summer.

Top Hat is undoubtedly heading for the West End where I am sure it will be set for a long run and I suspect tap dancing classes will be springing up  throughout the land.

Chambers has a passion for tap and it shows. He is no Astaire, but then who is, as Variety noted Astaire started where the rest stopped, but he shows some real flair and skill in his solo numbers such as Top Hat, White Tie and Tails, widely regarded as Astaire’s greatest solo and he dances well with Strallen.

The Top Hat number incidentally is the only one where the stage appears a bit cluttered. In the film in the gun sequence Astaire shoots at a line of dancers on a bare stage, like ducks in a shooting gallery. In this version, amid the sets, Chambers shoots into a crowd and the result is much less effective - although it was still a good finale to the first half.

Chamber's voice is pleasant and he has a nice, easy stage manner, much in the mould of Astaire - although his American accent does tend to drift from state to state - and he shows winning Strictly Come Dancing was no fluke. His solo with a hat stand in the first act is truly memorable - even the hat stand deserves a round of applause for that one.

Miss Strallen, meanwhile, has a growing reputation as a West End musical theatre star (Love Never Dies, The Sound of Music, The Drowsy Chaperone) and you can see why. She can act, dance and sing and looks the part and then some.

It is unfortunate that there did not seem to be  any obvious chemistry between the pair but that either happens or it doesn’t, you can’t script it, but they, and the rest of the cast, managed to stop people looking at their watches and shuffling in their seats  for nigh on three hours and that is no mean feat. Time just flew by.

Jerry finds dancing is an affliction he suffers from or so he tells the new love of his life Dale

A mention for Jason Winter who just flowed with an easy grace as the shadow dancer to Jerry in the scene where Dale complains about the noise and a mention too about the costumes designed by Jon Morrell which looked both beautiful and authentic. We even had that famous ostrich feather dress in Cheek to Cheek which even lost a few feathers – now that is authentic.

Mention too for the magnificent Art Deco sets from Hildegard Bechtler which could have come straight from a 1930’s movie lot - and an expensive one at that. They gave us gentlemen’s clubs, Broadway and West End theatres, a London park, hotel lobbies, suites and rooms, Venice and even an aircraft all seamlessly gliding in and out and with clever linking scenes without the merest a hint of a break.

Clever lighting from Peter Mumford showed a lot of thought has gone into the classy  production directed and co-written by Matthew White while the music showed what happens when you invest a show with a 14 piece orchestra.

The orchestra, under musical director Dan Jackson, were superb filling the Hippodrome with those wonderful Berlin melodies.

Top Hat might be a tribute to a 76-year-old film but I suspect it could well be creating a new genre. No doubt somewhere there are already teams working on bringing other dance musicals from the golden age of the 30s and 40s to the stage, coming soon to a theatre near you, as they say.

But don’t wait for the next one to come along; this may be a fabulous, glamorous celebration of an elegant era of the cinema when style and sophistication were the hallmark of musical comedy but this stage version is big enough and certainly good enough to stand on its own two tapping feet - a standing ovation at the end was a tribute to that.

If you remember the film then you have something compare it with, if not, then you can just sit back and enjoy. It is a wonderfully entertaining show in its own right. Top Hat is just top drawer and timeless. To 10-09-11.

Roger Clarke

The film that started it all with video of Fred and Ginger in their heyday FEATURE

Meanwhile tapping away in the corner . . . .

****

 IT'S easy to see why this glamorous musical was such a hit as a movie in the 1930s with so many memorable songs, beautiful girls and, above all, brilliant dancing.

Starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the RKO film sparkled with the music and lyrics of Irving Berlin, and this stage version is a faithful interpretation of the silver screen hit.

Directed by Matthew White, with Bill Deamer's choreography, the show is enjoyable but not great, and it may be that members of the audience who felt the urge to provide a standing ovation were acting on a feeling of nostalgia.

At three hours long it could do with a bit of trimming, and much as I love musicals I found myself glancing, a shade anxiously, at my watch well before the colourful finale.

For me, the dancing was good, but only served to emphasise the briilliance of television's Strictly Come Dancing. Time marches on!

Performed on a superb Art Deco set, Top Hat features Tom Chambers - winner of the 2008 Strictly - as famous American tap-dancer Jerry Travers who arrives in London to appear in his first West End show and meets the lovely Dale Tremont, the girl of his dreams, played by Summer Strallen, and follows her across Europe hoping to win her.

Chambers and Strallen are excellent both in song and dance, and there is some fine comedy featuring Ricardo Alfonso (flamboyant dress designer Alberto Beddini), and Stephen Boswell as Bates, the snooty valet to impresario Horace Hardwick.

A fairly thin story, but good on the eye and ear. To 10.09.11.

Paul Marston

Home  Hippodrome  Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre