In a programme note translator and co-author Jeremy Sams describes how the musical evolved as he worked with french composer Michael Legrand and libretist Didier Van Cauwelaert to mould a loosely associated cycle of songs into a Broadway musical. Alas, despite being nominated for five Tony Awards it was an expensive flop and closed after two weeks. Luckily director Hannah Chiswick staged a recent drama school revival and invited along enterprising producer Danielle Tarento who saw its potential as a chamber piece and the two have revived it with the audience banked on opposite sides of the action.
The show tells the surreal story of an unremarkable clerk who discovers he has the ability to walk through walls affording him a celebrity status which emboldens him to approach a downtrodden house wife he’s admired from afar. Having such a wonder in their midst also inspires optimism in the street and induces policemen to tap dance, paperboys to up date us shouting “extra extra”, lots of whistling, cycling around the stage and a jolly prostitute to sing a “it’s a funny old life” song. It’s that kind of show. All does not go smoothly for the pair but to reveal anything further would be to spoil what little additional plot there is.
There are darker notes too. We may be in storybook Paris but it’s a city emerging from WW2 Nazi occupation and two of the characters are tainted with collaboration. Also if you try really, really hard you can find a metaphor for the compromises life forces on us all in the bitter sweet ending.
Chiswick ups the nostalgia factor by staging it all very simply as the kind of theatre that defined the 1990s, expect a bare stage with the cast waving six chairs around through smoke and shafts of light to reflect location and the mood of the characters. The emphasis then is on the performances and the cast, many of whom are veterans from past Tarento productions, sing beautifully and convey all the winsomeness with great charm and infectious enthusiasm.
Gary Tushaw is our leading man, it’s tricky to make an impression playing a character defined by his lack of charisma but he does everything he can to lodge Monsieur Dusoleil’s dilemmas in our minds even as the whirling sub plots of gay Parisian street life threaten to swamp the main story. The script doesn’t allow him to meet his lover, Isabelle, until quite late in the show so there’s little chance of sexual chemistry between them and so it proves but Anna O’Byrne as the object of his affection, sings endearingly of the frustrations of her loveless marriage to our villain and her yearning for love.
The bad guys are the most vivid characters and West End leading man Alasdair Harvey brings a wonderfully snarling charisma to the prosecutor husband. He’s an actor that gets better and better with age. Steven Serlin embodies everyone’s idea of a preening vindictive boss and Jack Reitman takes over the role of a creepy Nazi doctor from the indisposed Daniel Stockton so well that he makes your skin crawl. Of the ensemble characters, all of whom get a song, I particularly enjoyed Keith Ramsay as a world weary street artist with a gorgeous voice.
I’d recommend this as an evening of many sweet pleasures but head elsewhere if your craving emotional or intellectual engagement.