Monday, 12 August 2019

REVIEW: Showtune at the Union Theatre


Showtune celebrates the words and music of Jerry Herman. For musical theatre fans his work is legendary. But the whole world knows his work. If nothing else that’s thanks to Hello Dolly – both the title song and, for a younger generation, from the Disney film Wall-E, Put On Your Sunday Clothes. There’s also I Am What I Am from La Cage aux Folles and the title song from Mame.

Showtune is a musical revue with no dialogue. The songs and lyrics are allowed to do all the work. They are grouped together thematically so some extra sense of structure is added to what would otherwise be effectively a concert. That it is so much more than this is thanks in large part to the brilliance of Herman’s songs. As the show progresses you find yourself increasingly in awe of the talent that can produce so much high quality material, writing both music and lyrics.

The stories and characters embedded within each song are brought convincingly to life by the talented cast, with nuances of humour, wit, pathos and sadness all deftly crafted into their performances. The 10 of them create a warm, powerful sound together which, combined with the stunning technique of MD Henry Brennan at the piano, creates a sound so full you hardly ever feel the absence of a full band.

The format chosen by director/choreographer Luke Byrne is for us to be seeing both the show being performed and the backstage dressing rooms. So there is a raised stage area with plush red curtains through which to make a grand entrance as well as costumes draped everywhere in the on-stage dressing rooms.

We know we’re in safe hands from the beginning as the cast assemble and change from their street clothes into costume. The sound is confident, the performances assured. And just in case you’re in any doubt, the next thing we’re getting is the full show-stopper treatment with a brilliant version of Put On Your Sunday Clothes. So the big guns are out straight away with some impressive choreography in the mix as well!

An early highlight for me was I Won’t Send Roses, which showed we were also
going to get some sensitive and meaningful interpretation of the songs. Aiden Cutler, who has a beautiful voice, also brought intelligence and warmth in spades to this number.

I also learned that there’s a show I don’t know which I really ought to – Mack and Mable. This is a musical about Hollywood, telling the story of film director Mack Sennett, most famous for creating the Keystone Cops. The songs featured from it were all wonderful.

And that’s my criticism of the show. The songs are great but as a celebration of Jerry Herman it left me wanting to know so much more. More about the man, more about the shows. Perhaps that’s its aim. But even basic information like what shows the songs were from would be nice. The absence of this kind of content from the show is down to the Paul Gilger, who devised it back in 2003. But I would have thought such details could have been included in the programme. All you get in there is a song list (which you get for free as you go in anyway) and biographies of the cast and creatives behind this production.
There’s not even a mention of Jerry Herman! I had to go online to find out even basic information about him (in case you’re wondering he’s 88 and living in Miami Beach – according to Wikipedia).

Lovers of Herman’s work will be thrilled by this fitting tribute to an exceptional talent. Those with less knowledge will have their ears and hearts opened to some extraordinary songs.

Review by John Charles

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Unassigned seating | Price of Ticket: £22

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