This review was originally written for The Public Reviews – http://www.thepublicreviews.com
Given its wafer-thin storyline, it comes as a surprise to find that Harvey Fierstein’s book for this musical is based upon a film and television play for which writing credits went to heavyweights Gore Vidal and Paddy Chayefsky. A young couple announce that they plan a simple civil wedding within a week and are faced with their families insisting on a church ceremony and a reception with hundreds of guests, notwithstanding the fact that the parents of the bride-to-be have little money to pay for it. That is the plot in total, meaning that the show is almost entirely character driven. Janey (Aimee Gray) and Ralph (Calum Melville) are a likeable if slightly dull couple who express their feelings for each other in the charming duet Don’t Ever Stop Saying “I Love You”, but the main focus is on Janey’s family – her parents Aggie (Maggie Robson) and Tom (Howard Samuels), both still mourning the loss of their only son in the Korean War, and her Uncle Winston who sleeps on a sofa in their cramped apartment in the Bronx of the 1950s.! ! Robson sings beautifully throughout, but takes some time to get into her character, making little impression in the first half. It is not until after the interval that she becomes genuinely moving as a grieving mother wanting to give something to her surviving child whilst questioning the worth of her own marriage. Similarly, Samuels is somewhat anonymous until late on when his character finds that his marriage could be threatened and he pleads his case strongly in the dramatic I Stayed. Given his other best known work, it comes as no surprise that Fierstein has most fun with the flamboyantly gay Uncle Winston and he took the role himself in the original American production. Here, David Anthony revels in playing him; wounded at his exclusion from the wedding invitation list, he gets gloriously drunk and performs Immediate Family with splendid comic indignation. However, this character apart, Fierstein does not fully tap the potential for comedy in the piece; for example, Ralph’s snooty mother (Judith Street) appears only fleetingly and we want to see more of her. Fierstein’s problem could have been that songs eat up time, but, if they are allowed to nudge out comedy, it opens up the question as to whether this might have been better left as a straight play. John Bucchino’s score is pleasing on the ear, if occasionally repetitive, and there is little seriously wrong with his lyrics, except that a few are slightly bland. The best of the songs work well with Fierstein’s book, adding to the comedy or heightening the drama. A five- piece band of strings, woodwind and piano is tucked neatly into a back corner of Edward Iliffe’s impressionist set and, under the musical direction of David Keefe, they make a rich sound which does full justice to the music. This is not a dance show, but Ray Rackham’s production cries out for more fizz. The stage at this venue is adequate, but not vast and does not need to be reduced by having unnecessary furniture lying around to impede the performers’ movement. Songs ought to be interpreted physically as well as vocally and too often in this show singers are static, and actors who are peripheral during a song, are seen just standing or sitting and gazing into space. The show’s brief Broadway run in 2008 (around four months) suggests that it has deep- rooted problems and it may have been asking too much for this modest production to resolve them. What we see here is a curate’s egg of a musical – good only in parts, moderately entertaining but quickly forgettable.
Performance date: 6 June 2014