REVIEW: You Won’t Succeed On Broadway If You Don’t Have Any Jews, St James Theatre ✭✭✭✭

The cast of You Won't Succeed On Broadway If You Don't Have Any Jews. Photo: Pamela Raith
The cast of You Won’t Succeed On Broadway If You Don’t Have Any Jews. Photo: Pamela Raith

You Won’t Succeed on Broadway if You Don’t Have Any Jews
St James’ Theatre
27th August 2015
4 Stars
Book Tickets

Being tasked with putting together a revue of great Jewish showtunes must be like shooting fish in a barrel.

This revue aims to pick the cream of a very successful crop and what cream it is – shows from Jewish composers include Oklahoma, The Wizard of Oz, Guys and Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof, Beauty and the Beast, Rent and Gypsy. Gershwin, Berlin, Hammerstein and Sondheim all feature as heavily as you might expect, along with as a few surprises – who knew that Boublil and Schonberg of Les Mis fame were Jewish?

With a pool of talent like this to draw from the setlist was predictably excellent, with an ‘ooo’ of recognition greeting nearly every opening bar. There are 28 sublime tunes (not including medleys) in this production and I’m sure you could fill a dozen brilliant shows with what didn’t make the cut. However, it seemed a big omission not to feature anything from The Producers, a musical about as Jewish as challah bread and gefilite fish (they’re called Bialystock and Bloom for goodness sake!).

The show was ordered chronologically, starting with Jewish mass migration to America in the early 1930s and ending up in the present day. Between each decade of songs there was a clip providing historical context and explaining more about the tunes. These could have been a bit dreary and repetitive but the accompanying animations which were lovely to look at. These viginettes were also backed by live music from Inga Davis-Rutter’s band, who were excellent all night.

This show is full of life and vigour, avoiding the staticness that can hamper many revues. Each song has clearly been thought of as a separate theatrical piece, rather than a simple sing-song and Chris Whittacker’s choreography is instrumental in making this happen. The dancing is most fun when it embraces the show’s Jewish roots; Tradition from Fiddler on the Roof and the show-stopping finale were both accompanied by high-energy routines. It was like being a guest at a Jewish wedding and it was infectiously hyperactive and upbeat.

You Won't Succeed On Broadway If You Don't Have Any Jews.
John Barr and The Cast in Be Our Guest. Photo: Pamela Raith

The transitions between songs, which can often disrupt the momentum of revues, were swift and on one occasion hilarious. Jackie Marks, the first British woman to play Fantine, delivered a stunning rendition of I Dreamed a Dream from Les Mis. As she left the stage, lips quivering, she was almost swamped by a gaggle of day-glo and lycra clad fitness freaks running on to deliver a showstopping rendition of Fame. Both performances were brilliant in their own way; the considerable variety of the show kept it fresh and meant it didn’t outstay its welcome.

Whilst the choreography was generally very good, it could have been used a bit more sparingly at times. The high-energy ensemble numbers clearly benefited from the troupe of six excellent dancers. However, using them during the solo numbers and videos was often distracting when the action was very much speaking for itself. Having a dance number when you want the audience to watch a screen elsewhere on stage seems counterproductive, especially when some of the subject matter was as weighty as the Holocaust and 9/11. Equally, Sophie Evans’ superb rendition of Over the Rainbow didn’t need some balletic action during the second verse, particularly when at some points it blocked Evans from the view of the audience.

Revues are always hit and miss and luckily there were way more hits than misses. There’s No Business Like Show Business (from Annie, Get Your Gun) was played for every inch of comic potential and a medley from Our Fair Lady gave Mia Ormala a chance to show her exceptional high register. Relative newcomer Danny Lane also made fine work of Everything’s Coming Up Roses from Gypsy, performing it with real passion. The previously mentioned Tradition and the finale (the titular song from Spamalot) were the undoubted highlights, rounding off the first and second half with true style.

You Won't Succeed On Broadway If You Don't Have Any Jews.
Sophie Evans. Photo: Pamela Raith

Despite the general sheen of quality, there were a few songs that didn’t quite match the standard of the others. Four Jews in a Room from March of the Falsettos was a hit with the audience but seemed to me far behind the rest of the setlist in terms of musical merit. Big Spender from Sweet Charity works best as a teasingly sultry number but was given the sort of choreography that must have been developed following a trip to the Spearmint Rhino. Conversely, La Vie Boheme from Rent, which should be anarchic and raucous, had all the edginess of a village fete in a patchy Rent medley (although it did feature Natalie Lipin, who is almost a double of Idina Menzel from Rent’s original cast).

The cast of twelve was excellent throughout – it seems unfair to single out individuals as they were all fantastic but as Irving Berlin would say ‘that’s show business’. John Barr is a West End veteran and he showed his class and comic timing during a wonderful version of Be Our Guest, as well as when he led the excellent finale. The cast was used unevenly and Barr seemed to go missing for most of Act Two; his return gave the production a real lift.

Sophie Evans is also a real star with a superb voice – her versions of Fame and Over the Rainbow were pitch-perfect. She has a very expressive face and she danced well when required (some of her castmates seemed to be excused the trickier dancing). Sarah Earnshaw was also hilarious as the bride in Not Getting Married Today from Company, an exceptionally difficult tune for even the most accomplished singer.

This revue is great fun and well-produced, combining superb music and performances with an insightful journey through the history of Jewish musical theatre. The show has wowed audiences in Tel Aviv (talk about preaching to the converted!) but judging by tonight’s crowd it has made its mark in London as well.

You Won’t Succeed On Broadway If You Don’t Have Any Jews runs until 5 September at the St James Theatre

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