If you ever wondered what Michael Bennett got up to after he scored such a hit with ‘A Chorus Line’, now’s your chance to find out. The canny 100-seater theatre underneath Waterloo East station celebrates its seventh anniversary of bringing unusual and often unknown musical theatre repertory to our eyes and ears with perhaps its grandest production by its founder and artistic director, Gerald Armin: a cast of 14 and band of 5 pack out the space in a splendidly tacky but affectionately dowdy recreation of a 1970s New York ballroom dancing club, the Stardust Ballroom.
Arriving bang on cue just before the National launches its ‘Follies’ at us, this show also visits the lives of older people, and the artistry of older performers. But, unlike ‘Follies’’ ex-stars of the golden age of Broadway variety entertainment, ‘Ballroom’ offers us the ordinary Joes and Janes of the unfashionable Bronx, a borough many subway stations’ ride away from the glitter and glamour of the Great White Way. They assemble once a week at the plain, rather drab dance hall (set and lights by Paul O’Shaughnessy), where a small band pumps out the tunes in its strict tempo (all sounding perfectly credible thanks to Inga Davis-Rutter’s disciplined arrangements of the original big-scale Broadway score). There, awash with Neil Gordon’s tastelessly over- or underdone costumes, they dance through the steps of rumbas, waltzes, bossa novas, hustles and wot not, squinting into the sparks thrown by the glitterball above, and brightly shaking off the glum realities of life outside.
Central to this milieu is the new arrival: a year after her bereavement, a widow and owner of a junk store is persuaded by live-wire best friend Angie (the ebullient Natalie Moore-Williams) into having a go at ‘being happy’. She is Bea Asher and is played by Jessica Martin, making a welcome return to the stage in a major role, here miraculously aged by Richard Mawbey’s genius with wigs. I would also love to know who does the remarkable job on her make-up, giving her a sallow, tired complexion, making her look every inch the lonely, desperate woman making a brave grab at getting back some sort of a life for herself, not only on the dancefloor but also off it with Al Rossi (Cory Peterson may be from Minnesota, but he strikes the echt New Yorker tone here in a well-modulated and fair-minded portrayal of the reluctant philanderer bringing some autumnal warmth into Bea’s life). It’s a familiar musical theatre journey: but here it is strewn with the rocks of ordinariness and the hum-drum. Even the second act showdown with her disapproving and interfering family, a confrontation that seems almost to propel us into territory occupied by Rainer Maria Fassbinder’s ‘Fear Eats The Soul’, even this dodges any emotional fireworks and instead shows us how such problems can be talked around, yes, firmly if need be, but always with reasonableness and without unnecessary dramatics. It’s a humane, unfussy message.
This may have everything to do with the show’s origin in a TV play by the book’s author, Jerome Allan Kass, whose single venture into musical theatre this work was destined to be. In a way, it is also a love-letter to Kass’ native Bronx, and the simple but humorous, everyday sort of people he saw and heard and knew. Like a giant saucepan of mom’s best chicken soup, his dialogue bubbles along, on a low heat, emitting pleasing burbles and hisses of repartee: a picky customer inspects some inoffensive ‘objet’ made of shells in Bea’s emporium, and asks, ‘Is this genuine?’, which gets the snappy answer, ‘Genuine WHAT?’ It is a mild-mannered, warm-hearted, unassuming world, where nobody really wants to stand out, but they don’t mind too much having to laugh off winning the first prize in the tango competition if that’s what everyone else thinks is best. This is not conventional musical terrain at all. No wonder the critics at the time, and audiences, didn’t quite know how to take it.
I think at Waterloo East we will not have to worry about that legacy too much, though. Choreographer Nancy Kettle has her charges go through plenty of routines, and they do her proud. Gerry Tebbutt is the most senior, at 72, although having spent a career doing this, his physical strength and suppleness have to be seen to be wondered at. You may well have seen him in West End shows decades ago, and he spent 17 years as Head of Musical Theatre at Guildford School of Acting (GSA). This kind of CV is par for the course with this remarkable company that has been gathered together to present not so much as a production as a ‘happening’.
Every last one of these actors brings a background of working in the most exciting and legendary shows to have brought pleasure and inspiration to generations. Colette Kelley (as the palpitating, fragile Shirley) was in the original UK casts of Hair and Grease. Jill Francis (as Martha, another of the ballroom regulars) started out with Danny La Rue and then became a leading choreographer for musicals, opera and pantomimes. And so it goes: Annie Edwards (the sparky Pauline); Garry Freer (the always remote Lightfeet); Olivia Maffett (by turns a bottle blonde glamour-puss and sniping sister-in-law to Bea as Helen/Emily); Dudley Rogers (the elegant Harry); Tim Benton (doubling as Uncle Jack and the dapper Bill) and James Pellow (affable Petey) bring to this company an extraordinary dimension of knowledge and know-how that make it something really special.
And to think that they have put this all together in a mere fortnight is all the more wonderful. Yes, the show may need a bit more running in before it properly dances along, but there are already plentiful moments when it does just that, and in these smaller, more intimate surroundings, we get as close to these people as viewers did when the story first aired on the television. As for the score, Billy Goldenberg’s music, familiar from dozens of TV programmes of the period, has a pleasant, surround-sound quality that may lack distinction, but it keeps things moving along, while simultaneously suggesting that these are lives going in circles, where nothing much happens and nothing of any consequence changes. Even the cabaret turns of the Ballroom hosts Danielle Morris (as Marlene, and Bea’s daughter Diane) and Adam Anderson (Nathan, and Bea’s son David) segue from one song to the next, and yet always seem to be singing the same thing. Nonetheless, Martin gets to sing the big number, ‘Fifty Cents’, the 11 o’clock number par excellence, with gusto and steel and impeccable phrasing. Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s lyrics tell frank, direct and honest truths about unpretentious lives; they’re neatly turned, clear as a bell in Andy Hill’s perfect sound mix, and – like the dancers – don’t put a foot wrong. Maybe it would be a more exciting show if they did, but things are too well under control here for any unexpected mishaps.
Until 4 June 2017
Photos: Robert Piwko