Review by Peter Brown
10 May 2012
NOTE: Note: There has been cast changes since this review!
Another musical, and yet another revival. Well, revival might not be exactly the right word here as this is a re-working of a film with the same title. So, one can see why the producers are advertising the show as a premiere, rather than a mere revival. In fact, this version of 'Top Hat' is based on the well-known film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers which first graced the silver screen back in 1935.
The real allure of 'Top Hat' lies in the songs which were written by Irving Berlin, many of which have become standards and are eminently hummable and lyrical, and thus infectiously catchy. And the songs provide the vehicle for the highly talented cast to show-off their considerable dancing skills. The plot, though, is pretty dire like many of the old films we have endured when reprised as TV screenings. It is an old-fashioned, if not staid romantic comedy in a style and format that has been pretty-well done to death. We cannot blame the writers or directors for this, because it is pretty evident that they have focused on being faithful to the original, and in most respects that works well. But there are times when interest begins to wane since there is more story and dialogue than in many modern musicals, so the plot is not so easily disguised by the interruption of song and dance routines.
Jerry Travers (played by Tom Chambers) is a well-known song and dance man who is brought over from the USA to England by a wealthy Englishman, Horace Hardwick, to perform in a show. In his hotel room, Jerry bursts into a tap routine disturbing a neighbouring guest, a beautiful woman called Dale Tremont (Summer Strallen). When she calls at his bedroom to complain, Jerry immediately falls for her, but she erroneously concludes that he is the husband of her friend Madge, and this mistaken identify is the single driver of the rest of the story which draws-in comedic characters such as Hardwick's butler, Bates, who dresses in various guises and quotes dubious proverbs uttered by his relatives, and a flamboyant Italian fashion designer who also has designs on Dale.
Almost from the beginning, you get a sense that this is a fond, if not a loving recreation of the film. That probably has a great deal to do with the fact that director Matthew White co-adapted the show for the stage, and has built-in a strong atmospheric flavour of the era. The dancing is nigh-on immaculately executed, but the choreography did not seem to me to be so inventive, perhaps restricted by the requirement of being 'faithful' to the film. Nevertheless, it is more than good enough, and my neighbours were rapturously complimentary about the dance sequences in our mid-interval chat.
It is always good to hear a proper overture, and we get one of the best here from a fine orchestra under the direction of Dan Jackson. The composition of the orchestra seems to have been carefully constructed with a dominant mix of saxophones and trumpets in order to conjure-up the distinctive sound of bands of the 1930s. In fact, there's a kind of radio feel both to the sound of the orchestra (especially in the first half) as well as in the overall audio quality including the singing. The technique, if indeed designed in that way, is certainly evocative and highly effective.
If you love song and dance and tap dancing in particular, then you will probably already have bought your tickets, and you certainly won't be disappointed. However, if you are not fascinated by song and dance, there won't be too much left in this show to really keep your attention since the plot is as thin as a very thin slice of bread, and the comedy lacks bite.
In some of the publicity I have seen for 'Top Hat', considerable play is made of the standing ovations the show has received on its tour around the country. But apart from one or two ardent fans, the audience stayed firmly in their seats on the night that I saw it and seemed a little muted, though generous in their response. It certainly is well-produced and directed, but whether it can muster the audiences to keep a foothold for very long among the intense competition of the West End, is quite another matter.
Peter Brown Web Site
What the popular press had to say...
"Amiable stage version of the celebrated Astaire-Rogers 1935 RKO musical. The evening can be quickly summed up as 'great songs, daft book'; and one simply waits patiently for the next Irving Berlin number or elegant dance routine to come along which, happily, they do with reasonable frequency."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The plot is thin and the jokes are often corny, with some of the exposition distinctly unexciting. Yet for the most part the execution is light and wholesome."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"I left the theatre feeling I had experienced an enjoyable evening, rather than a truly great one. Despite the fantastic Irving Berlin score, which includes all the numbers from the original film plus a host of his other titles, including the hauntingly ominous Letís Face the Music and Dance, something is lacking. And that something is combustible stage chemistry...Itís an engaging evening, but one that just fails to scale the dizzy heights of showbiz heaven. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
External links to full reviews from popular press
Guardian - Daily Telegraph -