Here’s some advice for the creators of “125th Street,” the nearly three-hour musical anthology that looks unlikely to break the Shaftesbury Theater’s unfortunate string of failures: Cut the first two-and-a-half hours altogether.
That would leave 20 minutes or so for some not untalented vocalists to let rip on “Shout,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Do Right Woman Do Right Man,” and a half dozen or so other R&B showstoppers. As it is, auds are forced to sit through the most witless excuse imaginable for a karaoke sing-along. The show just might eke out a run in a city that apparently can’t get enough of this sort of thing, but as pretexts for party musicals go, “125th Street” quite simply is pathetic.
The $3 million show is the brainchild of producer Alan Janes and his co-writer and director Rob Bettinson, whose previous collaboration on “Buddy” resulted in a West End mainstay that ran for 13 years. Bizarrely, the level of stagecraft this time around seems far less assured (the set and lighting are equally cheesy), even compared with an earlier rock ‘n’ roll jamboree that was itself hardly a paragon of sophistication. But from its shambolic opening with the house lights up through to the tortuous machinations of a plot that would be better off junked in its entirety, “125th Street” seems utterly clueless about delivering what was presumably its guiding impulse, which is to say giving the audience a good time.
In the past, it has been fascinating to note the intense British interest in the American pop music canon, which over the years has resulted in London tribute shows not just to Buddy Holly but to Elvis Presley, Al Jolson and Jerry Lee Lewis, not to mention those European bands (Abba, Queen, Madness) that seem to represent an increasingly confused musical theater’s best chance at box office catnip. But perhaps because “125th Street” is among the first to make race part of the equation, something deeply suspect and patronizing has crept into what after all is just an excuse to boogie down.
Set in 1969, “125th Street” uses racial turbulence to drive so confused a narrative that it ends up contradicting itself anyway. Somewhere between the cringe-making antics of the supposed compere Tony Sorrento (Domenick Allen) and reports of rioting in the streets emerges the feeling put forward by the authors that there exists no possible ethnic conflagration that a raucous rendition of “Proud Mary” cannot put right.
On the other hand, one is probably best off not getting too bothered by the politics of material that sums up America as follows: “This is the home of democracy, girlie.” But the saddening result of it all is to diminish an innate affection for the music, since “125th Street” makes it such a slog to get to the inevitable final concert. (“Buddy” worked the same way, eventually tossing aside its attempts at biography to start jamming with the crowd.)The show’s narrative spins a wildly drawn-out tale of woe consisting of infighting between the performers (one singer gets back at another by hurling at him a feisty “Piece of My Heart”), backstage recalcitrance (the more apparently shy the character, the more likely he or she is to bring the house down), and the verbal confusion inherent in Acapulco and a cappella — not that I’ve often been tempted to use those words in the same sentence.
The cast’s most grating performer is Philippa Waller as the TV warm-up girl who tells us when to clap, the most appealing a toss-up between Johnnie Fiori and Peter Dalton as Apollo Theater staffers named, respectively, Mabeline Baxter and Bish Bosh (!). That they and their colleagues can do this eight times a week marks a new form of heroism amid a musical that, for all the wrong reasons, does indeed make you want to shout.