Well, I don’t think Americans will be alone in their dismay at the banality of an evening that doesn’t possess the epic surrender to kitsch — in that sense, it is saved by its design — to become an instant West End camp classic along the lines of “Which Witch,” “Bernadette” and “The Fields of Ambrosia.” Instead, “Always” comes across as an often daft potpourri of would-be appeals to the audience (the token appearance of a dog named Slipper included), most of which only make it that much more difficult to suppress the giggles.
With Mumford’s vibrant lighting recalling Ken Billington’s work on “Chicago,” this musical has its own faux Kander and Ebb number, “Love’s Carousel,” for a chorus of prancing horses and onetime Three Degrees star Sheila Ferguson. With a nod to “Hernando’s Hideaway,” the song is soon piling on the Fred Ebb-like expressions of zest — “life’s what you feel,” blasts Ferguson with a vibrato Liza Minnelli might admire — in as imposed and forced a show-stopper as any musical has showcased in years.
Playing Wallis’ ever-stoic Aunt Bessie(!), Shani Wallis (remembered by filmgoers as Nancy in “Oliver!”) gets her own solo equivalent song in the second act, advising us that “the reason for life is to love.” Elsewhere, she croons pearls of wisdom “for you and I,” suggesting that grammar comes rather less readily to the character than deportment. Still, these good-natured supporting turns are a relief set against the sexless and charmless leads, who play no small part in torpedoing “the ultimate love story,” as the show bills itself.
In a role requiring a black-wigged Rebecca Luker, Jan Hartley hasn’t got the voice, the accent or the magnetism (on this evidence) of the scheming manipulator Wallis, for whom memories of her humble youth are never far off. Clive Carter’s Edward must suffer comparison not once but twice with Fred Astaire, an unfair task for a performer who couldn’t be less light on his feet. Elsewhere, he’s saddled with the bulk of the three book writers’ psychobabble — “the fake king living a fake life … this is my reality” — though he deserves credit for keeping a straight face during a ludicrous second-act opener in which some grimy-faced Welsh miners break into a hopeful chorale on behalf of the monarchy. (Those were the days.)
Anyone wondering whatever happened to Thommie Walsh since his “Chorus Line” years and beyond, most famously as Tommy Tune’s choreographic sidekick, will be astonished to find this Broadway veteran responsible for such dance numbers as “It’s the Party of the Year,” featuring champagne bottles and glasses glued to trays and smiles glued on the dancers’ faces: no mean feat (feet?) presumably, given the perilously open orchestra pit near the front of the stage from which the Buckingham Palace functionaries emerge prior to the finale. As co-director with Frank Hauser, Walsh more often than not seems rightly content to let the design take center stage. The picture frames (a gold one further evokes the sleek, pared-down “Chicago” aesthetic) in “Always” are always impressive; it’s what is in between that almost never is.