CHARLIE IS , ONCE AGAIN, OUR DANCING DARLING…
Foiled by heatwave and trains, I made it six days later to the summer’s highlight, the glorious absurdity of this wickedly successful mashup: songs by George and Ira Gershwin from various shows, reassembled years after their death by Ken Ludwig into a plot of brilliant cod-nostalgic absurdity, and roaring into life under Susan Stroman’s choreographic wit. It is the ultimate song-n-dance show. And, in this year of theatrical resurrection, the timeliest of celebrations of showbiz itself.
Bobby Child, a nerdy ambitious tap-dancing wannabe, pleads for work with Zangler the New York impresario but is packed off as a banker in the family business to Dead Rock, Nevada, population 37 after the gold rush expired. Ordered to repossess a failed theatre surrounded by yawning, bored rednecks, he falls in love with Polly, the only woman in town, and resolves to revive it. Posing as Zangler in a disguise so improbably successful that it is positively Shakespearian, he sets to work. Everything goes wrong, then right again. Especially when (more comedy-of-errors stuff) the real Zangler arrives, equally lovelorn, and even performs a drunken doppelganger scene with Bobby.
Ridiculous, and perfect. Stemp, who threw us all into a pother of admiration here in Half a Sixpence, is not only an extraordinary dancer but in this subtler story he satisfactorily changes and feels before our eyes, from the dreamer who can conjure up eight fluffily pink chorus girls from a tea-chest and can’t quite avoid standing on people’s feet, to a lover who gives up hope and then repents it.
It’s constantly funny, set-pieces and immense ensembles coming one after another, and the energy and quirkily characterful dances and bar-room brawls are its glory (as well as being, gentlemen, at times a hell of a leg show). You can’t take your eyes of it for a second to make notes: tap-athletic craziness, percussive precision , pratfalls, pastiche, wild-west wisecracks, it all keeps on coming. Jokey references, old and new: on Mickey Rooney, on the looming birth of Vegas “who’d come to Nevada just to gamble?” Even a deliberate Les Miserables pile of gold chairs surmounted by the red flag. Ludwig even leaves in a darker lyric in for now: “What if Romania / wants to fight Albania ?/ I don’t fret, I’m not upset..” It’s a recklessly necessary liberation: just dance.
Nor is it just all about Stemp and Carly Anderson’s strapping, tough and tender Polly. There are top moments from Tom Edden as the real Zangler, Marc Akinfolarin slappin’ that bass and a fabulously filthy, serpentine, threateningly erotic “Naughty baby” from Merryl Ansah. But too many to list: a joyful ensemble , each redneck character neatly and perfectly expressed in movement. There’s remarkable timing from Alan Williams leading an unseen orchestra which melds with the percussive precision onstage using feet, spades, pickaxes, jugs, saws, brooms, plates, hubcaps, corrugated iron…
It is immense, perfected, worked to a hair, and so it’s worth mentioning that it has sponsors: Architectural Plants and R.L Austen jewellers. And that (with Chichester’s famously good sightlines) tickets start at a tenner, and go no higher than £ 60. If you don’t put in a quick buck-and-wing step in the car park on the way out, I despair of you.
Cft.org.uk. To 4 sept.