Sally Brooks. Remember that name. Roll it around your mouth and let it tap-dance across your tongue until it’s indelibly etched upon your consciousness. You will hear more of Sally Brooks, I guarantee it. If her name isn’t known to you already it can only be a matter of time. She’s the choreographer – no, more than that. She’s the terpsichorial magician who has breathed fresh new life into Face The Music, the Irving Berlin/Moss Hart 1932 confection which has just opened at Walthamstow’s Ye Olde Rose & Crown in what is billed as it’s UK professional premiere. And what a premiere it is.
With Brooks’ stunning and witty choreography – yes, we did notice that little bit of Irish traditional dancing given to the New York cops – expertly executed by a cast who really are performing like it’s a Royal Command Performance rather than a pub theatre in Walthamstow, great – as ever – musical direction from Aaron Clingham, and fluid direction in what is an awkward space, by Brendan Matthew, this really is a show you should be crawling across broken glass to see.
OK, the score doesn’t come laden with hits the audience knows before curtain up, but as the first UK airing of a work by the man responsible for the books to As Thousands Cheer, Lady in the Dark, and Jubilee, the screenplays to Hans Christian Anderson, and A Star is Born, and the director of My Fair Lady, and Camelot – Moss Hart – and the composer/lyricist of Alexander’s Ragtime Band, God Bless America, Annie Get Your Gun, White Christmas, Putting On the Ritz, and a good deal more of ‘The Great American Songbook’ – Irving Berlin – this show is far more than a curiosity. In fact, I have to admit I went rather expecting a worthy re-tread, but what’s there on stage is very possibly the musical comedy missing link between Gilbert and Sullivan and The Book of Mormon.
The story is set in New York against a backdrop of The Great Depression, and is a ‘back stage’ story of putting on a show (interestingly the year before the movie 42nd Street, which shares some similarities).
Hal Reisman (Samuel Haughton) is a theatrical producer on his uppers, looking for investors to put on a show (think young Max Bialistock). He meets juvenile leads Kit Baker (Joanna Hughes) and Pat Mason (Alessandro Lubrano) who encounter the force of nature that is Mrs Myrtle Meshbesher (an astonishingly, grotesquely funny performance by Laurel Dougall) and her crooked-cop husband Martin Van Buren Meshbesher (another thrillingly outlandish turn from David Anthony).
More than 25 years before Fiorello! saw the light of day, Mr Meshbesher has a preponderance of ‘little tin boxes’ stuffed with cash from his various nefarious rackets that he needs to offload, so it doesn’t take much persuasion for him to be persuaded by Reisman that the best and surest way to get rid of a lot of money is to put on a show. The idea is that the cash will be laundered, and the box office receipts will go back to Meshbesher and his fellow crooked cops.
Reisman spends like it’s going out of fashion in order to put on a show which will lose money (and this is a full 35 years before Mel Brookes’ film The Producers) but it’s no good, the show’s a turkey, and all those involved will be back on the streets.
Unable to stand the thought of being on the breadline again, the kids in the cast come up with the bright idea of making the show more risqué. After all, who will it be who closes the show down for obscenity? Mr Meshbesher and his fellow cops, who will be able to open it up again.
The show is reopened as Rhinestones of 1932 and in the words of one of the characters ‘We were so dirty Mae West walked out’.
Just as predicted, the show is raided, and in the final sung-through court scene which could have come straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan, everyone ends with the right parner, the Meshbeshers go free, and Reisman is able to put on more shows.
The Irving Berlin Estate are apparently always keen to‘re-imagine’ his shows for a new time (and to produce work which will have a new copyright) and this show has several interpolations not in the original. With two or three more of his better known songs, I don’t see why it couldn’t become a West End hit for the first time. I haven’t so unexpectedly had a fantastic evening’s entertainment in ages. It’s certainly a hit in Walthamstow.