If you’re a fan of musical theatre (and I’m guessing that if you’re reading this you probably are) then I have a very pleasant bit of news to impart.
If you measure a successful evening in the stalls by the quality of the performances on offer, the excellence of the material they have to work with, and the scale of the emotional journey that material takes you on then, with the possible exception of Gypsy at The Savoy, Jerry’s Girls is quite simply the best night out to be had in London.
The show was originally conceived in 1981 by Larry Alford who approached Herman with a view to putting together a retrospective of his work. Together they came up with the idea of casting the show entirely from women, and even having a female band, showcasing the fact that so many of Herman’s shows have at their centre a strong female protagonist.
They booked the popular supper club ‘On Stage’ in New York’s theatre district, cast it with four female singers and three female band members, and the show (as Herman puts it in his 1996 memoir, Showtune) ‘…became such a hot ticket that it ran and ran and ran…’.
Over the next few years the show toured, and was expanded, acquired a chorus, and finally in December 1985 came triumphantly to Broadway, playing at The St James Theatre, where it ran for 141 performances.
The show at Jermyn Street isn’t that scaled-up behemoth, but is nearer in content and feeling to what the original supper club try-out must have been like; an intimate review with three singers Emma Barton, Ria Jones, and Sarah-Louise Young, and two multi-talented band members Edward Court, and Sophie Byrne.
I won’t give you a blow by blow account, suffice to say the show includes numbers from Herman’s hits – Hello Dolly, Mame, Milk and Honey – as well as his flops – Dear World, Mack and Mabel, and Parade – and even one of the songs he wrote for the producer David Merrick to be interpolated into Frank Lazarus & Dick Vosburgh’s show A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine, more of which later. As the show grew, and as Herman had his final great hit, La Cage Aux Folles, songs from that show were also, thankfully, interpolated.
Ria Jones, who is the most senior of the triumvirate on stage in terms of experience, is wisely given most of the torch songs. Her readings of ‘I Don’t Want to Know’ from Dear World, and ‘I Am What I Am’ from La Cage genuinely made me cry (and in saying that I would add that my face ached at the end of the night from the amount of smiling I’d been doing too…).
Emma Barton has probably the least well known song of the evening, the comedic tour de force, ‘Nelson’, from Hollywood/Ukraine. Coming out from behind a screen dressed as Jeanette MacDonald in a hat that can best be described as looking like a lamp-shade, she has the audience cheering her to the echo, and deservedly so.
Sarah-Louise Young also has spot-on comic timing, and a very endearing subversive side. Her explanations to the audience about a missing sound cue could have come straight from the pen of Ayckbourn, and her business in the build up to ‘We Need A Little Christmas’ managed to be utterly knowing, yet charming at the same time.
I mention ‘We Need A Little Christmas’, as incredibly Sophie Byrne, whilst still playing her flute, gets dressed as a Christmas tree, complete with lights. In fact, both band members are very impressive. Edward Court, on piano, also sings in a couple of places, and plays the piano accordion – as well as being able to play the piano the wrong way round…
Although Byrne doesn’t sing, she plays flute and sax flawlessly meaning that overall, with the number of possible combinations of singers and accompanying instruments each new number feels fresh.
In a nice touch there are pictures on the wall behind the performers, and we hear recordings of a couple of Jerry’s Girls, Angela Lansbury and Carol Channing, and even the great man himself at one point.
I truly think this is the best produced show I’ve ever seen at The Jermyn Street Theatre, so more power to producer Katy Lipson’s elbow.
- Music & Lyrics: Jerry Herman
- Conceived by: Jerry Herman and Larry Alford
- Cast: Emma Barton, Ria Jones, Sarah-Louise Young
- The Jermyn Street Theatre, London
- Until 31st May 2015
- Review by Richard Voyce
- 17 May 2015