A Damsel In Distress
Chichester Festival Theatre
6 June 2015
The “new” stage musical version of A Damsel In Distress (originally a novel, then a successful play and later a silent film and finally a vehicle for Fred Astaire) raises squarely the question of what audiences today want from the form. If the answer is show-stopping ballads or anthems belted into the night or bravura solos, perhaps with the bonus of huge ensemble dance numbers or some spectacular stage effect, then the latest fare at Chichester is likely to disappoint.
But if you want your musical to come with stories, characters, tunes, singing, and choreography which is pretty much all first class, and are happy to accept beauty and gentility as the parameters, and don't expect any particular number to appear belted out on Britain's Got Talent any time soon, then Chichester is the place to be. And fast.
Now previewing at the Chichester Festival Theatre is Rob Ashford's production of A Damsel In Distress (book by Jeremy Sams and Robert Hudson; music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin), a truly delightful, divinely old-fashioned, piece of musical nonsense that is terrifically enjoyable, genuinely funny, and touching in the way only zany plots and gifted performances can be.
It's a silly tale of love pursued, love unrequited, love lost, love tripped over, love requited, and love that blooms, set between the oddly similar worlds of the Savoy Theatre, where a new musical is being rehearsed, and stately Totleigh Towers in Gloucestershire. Both places are full of confusion and deception as particular people – Perkins at the Savoy and Lady Caroline Byng at the Towers – seek to impose their wishes to gain a result they think most appropriate.
Perkins wants his creative talent, the American George Bevan, to ditch his lofty ideas about the show they are putting on and settle for fun and frivolity on stage. Lady Caroline wants Maud Marshmoreton to marry Reggie, her son, so that the future of the estate will be secure. Running away from her Aunt, Maud encounters George and he helps her trick Lady Caroline, falling hard for Maud in the process. He follows her to Totleigh Towers and discovers that Reggie doesn't want to marry Maud – he is desperately in love with Alice, a member of the servant class. How the two would-be Romeos get their gals provides the bulk of the narrative and a lot of the fun and romance.
But theirs is not the only romantic journey – but to reveal much about the others would be to spoil the frothy sentimental fizz their stories revel in. Suffice to say, love comes in all shapes and sizes and ages and types; sometimes bittersweet, sometimes hysterical, sometimes simply lovely. But always engaging.
Christopher Oram provides wonderful sets and costumes. The Rapunzel-like tower is especially impressive, and the costumes across the board demonstrate why he was a worthy winner of a Tony Award for his costumes for Wolf Hall. Nothing jars in the look and feel of the places where the action plays out, which is impressive given the cavernous stage that is the Chichester Festival Theatre. No doubt this production would be more at home in a traditional proscenium arch theatre, but it plays very nicely here.
Ashford directs and choreographs with clear purpose and a thorough understanding of the time and place of the piece. The clash between American and English cultures and types is skilfully and charmingly portrayed. George is very American and Reggie is very English – together they are great chums and co-conspirators. What could so easily have been dreary and bland, is sprightly, giddy, and beautifully modulated to produce laughs, smiles and an all encompassing delight. The dance routines in Nice Work If You Can Get It, Stiff Upper Lip, I Can't Be Bothered Now, French Pastry Walk and Fidgety Feet are effortlessly engaging, thrilling to watch. As you emerge from the auditorium, it is impossible not be cheery.
Ashford is assisted in no small measure by superb orchestrations from David Chase and exemplary musical direction from Alan Williams. The singing here is glorious. The Gershwins make a lot of demands upon singers and Williams ensures that every note is hit truly and that the froth and bubble in the music is given full release. Equally, the softer, more romantic tunes are perfectly delivered and the big ensemble numbers throb with pristine placement and harmonies. This is a feast for the ears, aided and abetted by the 12 piece orchestra, led by Williams.
Even if you don’t know the Gershwin tunes, they are as hummable and catchy as you would expect. It’s a great list: Things Are Looking Up; The Jolly Milkmaid And The Tar; Nice Work If You Can Get It; Feeling I’m Falling; I’m A Poached Egg; Stiff Upper Lip; I Can’t Be Bothered Now; Love Walked In; French Pastry Walk; Soon; Fidgety Feet and A Foggy Day among them. Soon is given sensational treatment and is the true vocal highlight of the evening, but the delicious, sensuous opening for Act Two, I Can’t Be Bothered Now, is a very close second. And while A Foggy Day may not be the belting, big-noise 11 o’clock number people might expect, it is superbly done and provides exactly the right culmination of thought and song which that spot in the show demands: not every show requires a brassy 11 o’clock number. Just look at My Fair Lady for one example.
The cast, like a fine soufflé, is full of first rate choices and rises to the occasion in exactly the right way. Most importantly, everyone understands the ensemble nature of the piece; no one is seeking to do other than make their contribution to the whole, to paddle in the same direction, in the same canoe. It is heartening to see such involved interplay, such giving performances.
Richard Fleeshman proves himself much more than a matinee idol. His George is full of charm, and he sings with focussed energy, and in absolutely the correct style. He is funny and endearing and establishes good rapport with everyone else. He is not arrogant about his good looks and that, too, works well. His rendition of A Foggy Day is spot on – the essence of romance.
As the posh goofball, Reggie, Richard Dempsey is awkward, silly and totally daft – after all, he does sing I'm A Poached Egg – and absolutely pitch perfect in every way. The stage lights up when he enters, and he lands every line with skilful precision. This is one of the great character performances of the musical stage in some time. Flawless is not an overstatement.
His winsome, improbable, but equally scatty love interest, Melle Stewart's Alice, is Dempsey's equal in every way. This is a part that could be easily overplayed or thrown away, but Stewart imbues Alice with just the right levels of klutz, earnestness, and grace to produce a winning, triumphant character. She sings fabulously too – and her work in Nice Work If You Can Get It is outstanding.
I doubt there is anyone who can do corseted haughtiness and outrage like Isla Blair and her Lady Caroline is magnificent in her fury, doggedness (hard to explain that pun unless you see the show) and determination. She is wonderful, a raging ball of stupendous, arch assuredness. Which allows Nicholas Farrell to entirely occupy the shattered-by-life ground, as her brother Lord Marshmoreton. Tending to his roses and enjoying breeding his pigs, Farrell's Lord is half the man Lady Caroline is – which means more fun for the audience.
Watching Farrell bloom and get some grunt as his encounters with Fleeshman's George and his favourite actress, Billie, encourage him to take what is left of life with both hands, is irresistible. Each time he says “Dash it, Caroline!” you want him to pump up the aggression. As singers, both Blair and Farrell are marvellous actors, but both know enough about selling a song for this not to be a true impediment. Indeed, against the rest of the all-singing cast, their slight disadvantage in this area helps delineate them, makes them part of a fading age. They both work splendidly.
David Roberts does great work in dual roles – the grumpy, gently deceitful director who tries to trick George and the the fastidious, French chef whose heart is as big as his recipe book. Roberts knows how to use his voice to great effect, in singing and in dialogue. Both of his characters are finely judged, with Pierre, the cook, being an unmitigated triumph. Chloë Hart gives full-throttle support as Dorcas, the Undercook; she is bouncy, brilliant and vivacious, and she too has a gorgeous voice.
Desmond Barrit is exceptionally good as the old school Butler; Sam Harrison almost steals the show as Bungo Strathbungo (one line brings the house down); Matt Wilman is every inch the “burly Irish gardener”, and Laura Tyrer and Lucie-Mae Sumner are perky and attractive as Zoë and Annabelle. The four men, in fabulous black tie, who dance around Billie as Act Two opens are superb.
In truth, there are no weak links in this ensemble. It is as gifted and hard working an ensemble as one could hope for.
As Billie, Sally Ann Triplett is in quite sensational form. Her voice is in cracking shape and she nails every note with precisely the right amount of attack and colour. She gets to open both Acts and does so inventively and alluringly. It is she who makes Soon work as marvellously as it does, and her work with Farrell is bursting with simplicity and honest affection. She plays the relationship with George precisely correctly too – there is never any confusion about her interest in him. This is another world class turn.
Summer Strallen plays Maud, perhaps the most difficult role in the piece. She is the titular Damsel in Distress and wishes to avoid her enforced marriage to Reggie, not because she does not like him but simply because she does not love him. She gets locked in a tower for her trouble and, for the most part, is put-upon by one person or another. Yet, this being a Gershwin musical, she triumphs in the end, gets the right boy, and the wrong one (not Reggie) is given a fate he deserves.
Strallen is easily equal to the task and she makes stylish work of the singing and dancing. Her scene work, too, is good, but there is a surprising lack of warmth in her playing. This Maud is very cold. This is surprising given that George has to fall in love with her at first sight and that she is meant to be her father's daughter, not her Aunt's mini-me. With more warmth, more heart, Strallen's Maud will provide the correct sun around which all of the other heavenly bodies Ashford has assembled can orbit.
Sams and Hudson have done an excellent job of adapting this work for the stage, inventing and re-inventing parts of Wodehouse's original wheel. The dialogue is snappy and effervescent, and the tone light and supple throughout. There might be a tad too much emphasis on George's artistic angst than is strictly necessary or properly explained, but that does not really get in the way of the roller coaster of frivolity that the duo has here penned.
A Damsel In Distress is a great “new” musical. It completely encapsulates the feeling of a different time, a different style of musical. It is not Les Miserables or Wicked, but that is its strength. It is what it is – and what it is is beautiful, full of froth and bubble, syrup and cream. Utterly delicious.
If there is justice, it will transfer to the West End. It is as good as Crazy For You or Singing In The Rain, better than Top Hat and much, much better than High Society.
And…its exceptional value for money. You can catch it in Chichester for about a third of the cost of a good seat to The Elephant Man! Dash it – go!