When "Half a Sixpence" transferred from the West End to Broadway in 1965, the tuner had the ingratiating Brit charmer Tommy Steele as rags-to-riches-to-rags shop clerk Arthur Kipps, the exuberant choreography of Onna White and some dandy music hall ditties.
When “Half a Sixpence” transferred from the West End to Broadway in 1965, the tuner had the ingratiating Brit charmer Tommy Steele as rags-to-riches-to-rags shop clerk Arthur Kipps, the exuberant choreography of Onna White and some dandy music hall ditties. David Heneker’s songs are still infectious in the Goodspeed Musicals production, which also boasts a plucky lead and dazzling dancing. But the rarely revived show itself is thin, twee and unmoving. While it has plenty of mindlessly fun numbers, the musical feels especially quaint in the “Half a Euro” era.
The inelegantly plotted and less-than-witty script by Beverley Cross follows H.G. Wells’ 1904 story of a poor, sweet-natured clerk who becomes rich the old-fashioned, British way: He inherits a fortune. As he tries to adapt to his newly-found upper-class life, he loses his old sweetheart and his sense of self.
Problem with the book is that there’s not much self there. Wells’ subtitle was “The Story of a Simple Soul” and the musical takes that too much to heart, turning Kipps (Jon Peterson) into a smiling dolt in the first half and a declasse guy in the second, who’s gotten too big for his tailored britches.
There’s also more than a whiff of class containment which may be why American auds never wholeheartedly embraced the show. Though the rich here are mostly portrayed as twits and snobs, the message remains that people are happier when they stick to their own kind. As the ingenue sings in the second act, she knows who she is (and her place). But dreaming small is not the stuff of American musicals.
What auds do respond to is all-out music hall entertainment and “Half a Sixpence” is loaded with these numbers. Show starts off with one terrific song after another: a satirical waltz to frugality (“All in the Cause of Economy”), a delightful soft-shoe of a love sing (the title number) and a banjo-strumming foot-stomper, “Money to Burn.”
The original show was tailored to the talents of Steele and the character of Kipps is in nine of the 11 numbers, a huge role that has him off stage only for quick costume changes. Peterson brings his own dimpled charm, pliable physicality and ever-ready energy to the part. His entire head of hair in a perpetual cowlick, the actor looks like a scruffy puppy ready to adopt, and he has the audience at ” ‘ello.” But the score, not the script, is where the character and performance shine.
Savvy helmer Gordon Greenberg adds his own offbeat touches to cut through the cute, such as casting tall, dark, coltish beauty Sara Gettelfinger as the mezzo ingenue. This makes the romantic leads a quirky yet endearing pair.
There’s fine support all round, especially from Wes Hart, Danny Gardiner and Cameron Henderson as Kipps’ upbeat pals and Cheryl McMahon as a proper dowager.
But next to Peterson the other true star of the show is the dancing ensemble under choreographer Patti Colombo, whose work evokes the athleticism of Michael Kidd with the prop-happy cleverness of Susan Stroman. Colombo is not only a master of Goodspeed’s minuscule domain but a creative force on any tight stage.
The show’s precious aspects suit Goodspeed’s Victorian environment as do design elements such as Rob Bissinger’s painted backdrops and David C. Woolard’s costume finery. Score is brightly re-imagined for the small ensemble under the music direction of Michael O’Flaherty.