All Star Productions’ revival of Kander and Ebb’s 1965 musical, Flora the Red Menace, transferring to the Landor after a successful run at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre, is the first professional London production in 17 years of this often overlooked part of the Kander and Ebb canon – and though there is much to like in this lively and energetic staging, it’s not hard to see why its history has been problematic.
Set in the midst of the Great Depression, the show is hamstrung by its own ambivalence to its themes: is Communism an understandable, if misguided, reaction to a disastrous economy, or deluded idealism that attracts self-serving politicos? In lumping unionisation in with Communism, the writers (the book is by George Abbott and Robert Russell) seem to be asking us to pick between rampant, unchecked capitalism on one side, where the workers need to just get on with it and be grateful for the few jobs that are available, or the unworkable daydream of ‘smashing the system’. The show wants us to sympathise with Flora and her bohemian friends, but it never seems sure what we should be making of either her beliefs or her plight. This isn’t helped by the fact that the central romance is unconvincing: Henry is such a drip you can’t believe a feisty broad like Flora would even like him that much, let alone be influenced by his politics.
Also the bookending of the play with an introduction and conclusion that seeks to pretend we’re watching performers in the 30s is unnecessarily distancing. In effect, we’re watching a play within a play, as if the writers somehow don’t want to lay claim to their own characters.
This is a shame because Flora has an awful lot going for it. While none of the songs are showstoppers, they are rousing and lively, as performed by an enormously likeable cast. Katy Baker is a standout as Flora (a role originally played by Liza Minelli); part Ethel Merman, part Lucille Ball, she’s a dame with real moxy, a heroine who could have stepped straight off the silver screen. Stealing pretty much every scene she is in, Ellen Verenieks plays Charlotte, a predatory cougar who uses ‘The Party’ for her own self-aggrandisement. As the man they fight over, Steven Sparling does the best he can as the underwritten and unconvincing Harry (comedy stammer and all), but it’s hard to see why either of these compelling women would give him the time of day. Taking multiple roles, the rest of the cast handle the musical numbers with real aplomb; special mention should go to Kimberly Moses and her channelling old school Hollywood glamour as a dancer looking for a break.
In some ways this revival could hardly be more timely; its themes have rarely been more relevant, and the production has some fun with the idea that after the Wall Street Crash, the money men promised it would never be allowed to happen again. Doing double duty as director and designer, Randy Smartnick conjures up the atmosphere of 1930s New York, and keeps the pacing more or less tight throughout, but at times the action threatened to overwhelm the compact space of the Landor – it felt as though the production had been designed with a larger space in mind.
But ultimately what lets this production down most is not the efforts of those involved in the revival, but the source material itself; if the writers had had the conviction of the cast, this would have been a much stronger piece.