A WICKED WIT, WITH HEART ON SLEEVE : LIPPA TAKES LONDON
Here is Summer Strallen as Cinderella, ripping off her rags and scorning the ballgown for a dominatrix PVC corset and whip. Here is Caroline O’Connor glittering menacingly as a predatory, glamorous middle-aged lesbian knocking hell out of a party. Here’s Damien Humbley as Uncle Fester from the Addams Family singing a heartrendingly beautiful love song to the moon, with a ukelele accompaniment. And a divorced baseball Mom expressing her terrified love of a son growing away by shrieking at him from the touchline. And here’s a rude sadistic nun , Sister Severia.
And here is the Menier audience, shy but game, being persuaded by a slight, dapper figure in a grey suit and schoolboy haircut to sing along an extended, melodious line of the one word “Joooooooo-ooooy”, in honour of an unproduced, unfinished musical about Betty Boop. The man in the suit is Andrew Lippa, Leeds-born lyricist and composer but thoroughly New York now. Towards the end of this beguiling evening he sings something right from the heart, fresh from a work-in-progress about a writer of musical flops encouraging a small nephew whose ambition is to draw comic-strips. “I do what I do and I like what I do” he sings defiantly. “I do what I do, for the many or few..it has to be true”. It is the credo of the determined artist down the centuries, expressed with such joie-de-vivre you have to smile.
Lippa is certainly not such a flopster as his hero: a Tony nomination met his music and lyrics for The Addams Family on Broadway, and The Wild Party had cult success. But he is less known here, and with evangelical enthusiasm David Babani – whose sparky Menier has breathed new life into forgotten musicals from La Cage Aux Folles and Candide to Merrily We Roll Along – persuaded him over. Together they devised a showcase evening of songs from eight musicals (four still in progress), plus a revue and an oratorio on Harvey Milk. It makes a rich, funny, rewarding night.
I say a showcase, and had expected pure cabaret. But Babani was determined to be more theatrical, so the four cast whip in and out of costumes to perform each number in context, framed by a clever set of changing screens. There are two pianos (one must, obviously, provide an extra one for Summer Strallen to dance on in a pink satin petticoat) and a four-piece orchestra. Once or twice you struggle to grasp where a piece would fit in a musical’s plot, but the emotions of Lippa’s songs are strong and universal enough to carry that. The sequence from the Addams Family, with O’Connor as Morticia bouncing through “Death is just around the corner!” is unmissable. As for “The Wild Party”, a vision of 1929 decadence, it ranges from enormous belting numbers from Strallen, Connor and Humbley to a remarkable quartet (“based on Rigoletto”) with Lippa joining them in the shivering, haunting “Poor Child”.
As with his hero Sondheim, Lippa is at his best when working with his own lyrics (a few here are others’). There is a finish and a sharpness in them, dry wit and wickedness, a tattered but defiant heart on the sleeve, and an unashamed gift for melody. He is equally at home with sentiment and cynicism, rhymes and rambling, hokum and heartbreak. I fell for him. Hurry. It’s only got till Saturday week…
box office 020 7378 1713 to 14 June http://www.menierchocolatefactory.com