The Open Air Theatre never cancels a performance due to bad weather before the starting time and, true to form, the show certainly went on in the face of civil unrest on a deceptively beautifully clear evening. Regent’s Park provides a cocoon of tranquillity for this George and Ira Gershwin musical comedy that was devised in 1993 as a ‘trunk’ musical using Girl Crazy (1930) with its East Coast–Wild West clash as a starting point. It’s filled with songs from the Gershwin catalogue and features an original book by Ken Ludwig (who wrote Lend Me A Tenor) in the spirit of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland “Let’s put on a show!” extravaganzas, which relies rather too heavily on post-modern nudge-nudge-wink-wink jibes. It’s a perfectly preposterous bit of hokum with wonderful music and Timothy Sheader directs with great flair, but it does feel somewhat less satisfying than recent Regent’s Park offerings Into The Woods and Hello, Dolly! due to the lack of a really well-written book.
The hero, Bobby, is a young man who works in a bank but longs to be a dancer in the Zangler Follies. Dominated by his bossy mother and a disapproving fiancée, he’s sent to Deadrock, Nevada, a depressed mining town in the “armpit of the American West” to repossess a disused theatre and (literally) falls head over heels for the feisty Polly, the daughter of the theatre’s owner. When Polly doesn’t want anything to do with him after discovering that he’s from the bank, Bobby decides to impersonate the impresario Bela Zangler in order to put on a benefit show to save the theatre. His gaggle of lady friends from the follies (all wonderful dancers) turn the ranchers into dancers, but an audience fails to materialise. As soon as morale is re-established, the real Zangler turns up and confusion ensues.
In true Regent’s Park style, the staging is delightful: Peter McKintosh’s wooden set nimbly revolves between the flashing lights of Broadway and the barrenness of Nevada. Stephen Mear’s choreography is vibrant as always, with lots of elegant Fred-and-Ginger style soft-shoe and it particularly shines in the quirkier moments that integrate homespun props with the Broadway glitz. There’s excellent work from musical director Gareth Valentine providing an exuberant sound throughout. Credit is also due to the pigeon cleverly circling above during ‘Someone to Watch Over Me.’
American performer Sean Palmer is a true triple threat, brimming with natural charm and elegance, as well as being an excellent mimic. His leading lady Clare Foster is full of pep and also has an affecting wistfulness underneath her fierce façade. Kim Medcalf gets to explore her vampy side when her prim and proper New Yorker, antagonised by Michael McKell’s bit of rough, discovers her inner ‘Naughty Baby’ and David Burt has fun as the volatile Hungarian impresario. Harriet Thorpe and Samuel Holmes are also highly entertaining as a pair of jolly hockey-sticks British explorers clad in safari khakis. Their solution of a ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ and a nice cup of tea in the threat of adversity seemed remarkably prescient.
It’s very lively and glittery, a world away from any real-life troubles. The anti-materialist sentiment of ‘I Got Rhythm’ is a heartening one – an inspirational message to bear in mind.