Showtune (Union Theatre)

Showtune (Union Theatre, until August 24th)


Light the sparklers! The best of times – or evenings, at least – is on offer at the Union Theatre in a long overdue revival of Showtune, celebrating the musical genius of Jerry Herman.

First performed in 1985 as Tune the Grand Up the show came to London over 20 years ago as The Best of Times before settling with the title of Herman’s autobiography in 2003.

It is an almost unbelievable treat for musicals fans, as it includes hit songs from Broadway musicals Milk and Honey, Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Dear World, Mack & Mabel, The Grand Tour, A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine, and La Cage aux Folles – most of which are likely to be on any musical aficionado’s top 10 list.

Normally presented as a simple revue conceived by Paul Gilger, this version cleverly gives the songs a narrative arc with each telling a story about the ongoing lives, loves and backstage/onstage traumas of a theatre group staging a show. The format works well and somehow enriches the 40 numbers given an impressive outing in just under two hours.

Some of the songs are performed as part of the “CommUnionty Theatre Company” show, others are sung by performers preparing for their numbers, but the construction allows a neat mirroring of emotions and themes: one section, for example, becomes a battle of the sexes, while another shows a couple having to perform romantic numbers on stage while rowing and breaking up behind the scenes. If it all feels a bit off-Broadway then that is the whole point and there are even moments when one feels that the emotions and dramas onstage and backstage are far more interesting than anything this musical troupe will experience outside the stage door and back in the realities of their lives.

Luke Byrne is someone Union regulars may be more used to seeing front of house, but he’s had plenty of experience performing in shows and his knowledge and craft is very much in evidence as he directs and choreographs Showtune, allowing each of the 10 talented performers to shine individually as well as working together to create some toe-tapping company numbers. If the stage sometimes seems too small, then this perhaps highlights the ingenuity of the choreography in managing to fit everything in, and adds to the sense of everyone being under pressure in the narrative links. In any case Byrne proves himself admirably in both departments and one can only imagine and dream about what he will one day be capable of with a full-scale production in a large venue.

Opening numbers don’t come any bigger than It’s Today from Mame, coupled here with Big Time from Mack & Mabel , We Need a Little Christmas (Mame) and Put On Your Sunday Clothes (Hello, Dolly!) as the company arrives and gets ready for their show. It is to the credit of the production that we are allowed to identify so easily with each of the characters rather than them just being singers performing a back catalogue of well-known songs.

Daniel Wallage evokes the excitement of putting on the slap for the opening number with A Little More Mascara (from La Cage aux Folles) moving from the dressing room onto the stage – a typical example of how the show is seamlessly built up. He later performs a poignant duet of Song on the Sand from the same show with Michael Bowie, a backstage romance reflecting an onstage moment between Aidan Cutler and Alex Burns (who earlier on present a bewitching version of I Won’t Send Roses) – the meaning and relevance of the lyrics couldn’t be more different or affecting in each case.

There isn’t a weak link in what is a near faultless production which pulls together some true classics of the genre in a way that avoids being a mere retrospective of Herman’s output. Not only are the solos potent and touching, all picking up the strength of Herman’s usually optimistic lyrics, but there are some showstopping company numbers, especially with Tap Your Troubles Away in which the small space becomes a powerhouse of blistering energy.

We see the on/off relationship between Charlotte George and James Molyneux, sparring onstage hilariously in My Best Girl (Mame), a golden age duet, leading to the woman bemoaning the abilities of her leading man in Nelson (from A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine). This in itself seeps behind the scenes in Molyneux’s cry from the heart, It Only Takes a Moment and George’s desperate plea What Do I Do Now?

Ella-Maria Danson shows off a beautiful range in Time Heals Everything and in a wicked duet with Burns as the two play Dolly Levi and Mame Dennis to sing Bosom Buddies, a rendition which neatly catches the spirit of Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur, who performed the song in the original Mame back in 1966.

There’s a great segue from Samara Rawlins singing Shalom (from Herman’s first big hit Milk and Honey) to Rawlins, Jasmine Hackett and Danson singing I’ll Be Here Tomorrow from Herman’s little known The Grand Tour, painting a picture of friendship and solidarity.

Other highlights include Hackett’s jealously hopeful When the Parade Passes By (a song of every chorus girl wanting to play the lead), Bowie’s The Man in the Moon, Cutler’s Kiss Her Now and Gabriel Hinchliffe’s One Person.

Holding so much together musically is another regular face at the Union, MD Henry Brennan, who makes the piano sound like a full-scale orchestra. A band might just have overwhelmed the proceedings, but Brennan’s spirited playing adds another layer of vitality.

The one disappointment is that the song Hello Dolly! (surely one of the most popular songs ever to come out of a Broadway musical) is sung fleetingly in Act One and referenced as an instrumental to open Act Two, but instead of following the original production’s singalong finale it is simply played on piano as the performers leave the stage/theatre and head off to their homes or the bar.  By this point at least half the audience wants to sweep down the aisle stairs and belt out the familiar showstopper alongside the company!

It is a real surprise that this show isn’t seen more often as who wouldn’t want to celebrate the life, words and music of Jerry Herman? It is performed with such confidence and style at the Union that the celebration becomes a lustrous tribute to the man who has provided the musical stage with so much sunshine and sparkle.

David Guest

Image, Jamie Scott-Smith

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub