It is my growing opinion that the modern compendium musical is the replacement for old time vaudeville or music hall: for a popular entertainment that enables you to lose a few hours forgetting your troubles and enjoying the energy, music and sheer gutsy entertainment value of the performances and material you have taken yourself to. It is undemanding but not unsophisticated; it is direct in its communication but also with some layers of thought being provoked; it is a reflection of energies, dreams and a world as we wish it really could be. And you come out feeling cheerful and terrific. It is emotionally the Technicolor version of life’s black and white.
Love Me Tender, the latest show in the genre was a hit on Broadway and is now in the midst of an extended summer tour of the UK with a planned transfer to the West End when that tour ends. This show is just such a colour-saturated replacement for (or modern update of?) an evening at the music hall. The story is a pastiche of 1950s rock musicals and their tropes, tongue firmly in cheek, with a 21st century liberal take on racism and romance in the Midwest of the USA. The whole thing is built around 25 songs that Elvis Presley made famous.
The witty, mildly satriric book was constructed by Joe DiPietro, who is more famous for the musical Memphis nowadays; and also for a charming off-Broadway show called I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. There are a great many superb throwaway lines and wisecracks; and the constant bizarre but hilarious inventiveness that lassoes the different songs is non-stop. the songs are terrific and the book is really rather interesting in a situation comedy kind of way. Throughout, the corn and the irony are as high as an elephant’s eye.
And, of course, it is all very nostalgic. But there is nothing painful or profound – certainly not the chorus of Ku-Klux-Klan joining in the romp for a moment at one point nor the evangelical fundamentalism of the Mary Whitehouse type Lady Mayor. There is a lot of fun to be had with 1950s misogyny; and also with goony Shakespeare references – especially as the plot co-opts elements of Twelfth Night and As You Like It, where a girl dresses as a boy and there is some confusion about who is in love with whom and ambiguous sexual attractions. Spoiler Alert: As in Shakespeare and every other romantic comedy, everything works out in the end and everyone goes back to being the proper sex again – and suitably coupled. Just thought you would like to know not to worry.
Many of your favourite Elvis songs will be there and sung by the current cast you will become aware of how much they respond to different voices, and different interpretations, and how good the music (and usually the lyrics too) actually can be. The Orchestrations of Matt Spencer-Smith are as witty and apt as the script; and Patrick Hurley’s music direction is idiomatic and pleasing.
The cast is simply lovely. Mica Paris is superb as the earth-mother figure running the town bar. Sylvia! Who is Sylvia? She reminds me a bit of Pearl Bailey in her prime. I love her voice and her delivery and would happily add an extra three or four Elvis hits on top of the ones she is singing just for her. My only quibble about the show is that she needs to be on that stage more. Shaun Williamson is plausible and amusing as Jim, virtually obliterating memories of his East Enders persona. But the show really centres on the talented and appealing Australian import Ben Lewis playing the Elvis-type figure, Chad, the bad boy motor cyclist ex-jailbird with the twitching pelvis, strong voice and terrific dance moves; and Laura Tebbutt’s Natalie (think Viola or Rosalind?). Sian Reeves’ hard line mayor, Mark Anderson’s nerdy but appealing Dennis and Aretha Ayeh’s delightful Lorraine also deserve high praise – as does the rest of the cast and all the dancers who do director and choreographer Karen Bruce proud.
Everyone up on that stage is a talented singer/dancer whom I would like to see again (Kate Tydman, Felix Mosse and Paulo Teixeira among them); most of the personalities are large and memorable; the ensemble works brilliantly together; the songs are very well performed; and the whole show slickly swings and develops musically and visually as it goes along. The whole enterprise generates enormous fun. The sets (Morgan Large) and costumes (Vicky Gill) are evocative of the early Presley years; and the day-to-night-to day lighting effects and fairground fairy lights (James Whiteside) are praiseworthy and atmospheric.
There are no big surprises and no real tears. Love Me Tender does not question or subvert its own conventions the way that Carousel or other shows of Golden Era on Broadway sometimes did. However, the pastiche, musically and dramatically, is endlessly inventive, clever and delightful in its references. There is nothing not to like!
You should also be sure to stay for the post-curtain call routine when you can sing and dance along. Both Mica Paris and Ben Lewis in particular outdo themselves. Like a lot of these shows, Love Me Tender is an un-troubling and excellently feel good experience, a seriously entertaining and upbeat way to pass some hours; and there is a lot more real talent up there on that stage than there ever was on The X-Factor. It is to shows like this that one should go to spot the next generation of professionals and stars.
The tour continues until the end of September so if it comes near you I recommend you give yourself a Summertime treat while it is still in the regions. After that there is a planned transfer to the West End where I am confident it will have a successful run.
- Book by Joe DiPietro
- Music and Lyrics by various artists – a compilation show of the songs of Elvis Presley
- Directed by Karen Bruce
- Cast Includes: Mica Paris, Shaun Williamson, Ben Lewis, Sian Reeves, Mark Anderson, Aretha Ayeh, Chris Howell, Laura Tebbutt, Kate Tydman, Felix Mosse
- New Theatre, Oxford
- Until 11 July 2015 on UK tour
- Review by Mel Cooper
- 7 July 2015