None of the many previous stage and movie treatments of the plight of actors facing the House Un-American Activities Committee has used the setting of a run-down burlesque house. Imagine the three strippers from “Gypsy” facing the Red Menace, and you have the new musical “Burlesque.” There’s definite talent and skill at work here, but lack of originality and rigor pull the rug out from beneath the amusingly intriguing premise.
Composer and co-writer Adam Meggido sticks to the familiar. As befits his 1952 setting, he crafts “Burlesque” as a book musical stuffed with stock characters from the annals of showbiz folk.
Overseeing everything is Freddie Le Roy (a nicely gentle Linal Haft), the aging theater owner with an eye for the girls. Then there’s the hard-bitten, secretly lovelorn older woman Lula Malkah (Buster Skeggs), who is in charge of the girls, each of whom gets a single motivation, an opportunity to outline her plight in song, and little else.
So far, so sweetly nostalgic. However, Freddie’s theater is on the brink of closure because burlesque is moving off the stage and into nightclubs. Even the comedy act is on the skids since lead comic Johnny Reno (a wisecracking Jon-Paul Hevey) has been named as a Communist — cue too many gags about comics vs. Commies.
Johnny, whose brush with Communism was entirely accidental, sings about how politics don’t matter to him. All he and his comedy partner “Rags” Ryan (Chris Holland) want is to “make it.” But it’s blindingly clear that Johnny’s naivete won’t save him, especially when “the Feds” take to visiting him at the theater and press him into naming names. Will he stand up against oppression or compromise to save his career and the child he’s going to have with stripper Honey Hogan (Alicia Davies)?
The use of cliche in the book, co-written by Roy Smiles, is clearly a conscious attempt to trade off familiarity while venturing into politics. But neither the dialogue nor the music successfully handle the lurches in tone between the two moods. The contrast between, for example, period-style Andrews Sisters-esque trios and angst-ridden power ballads of personal determination is awkward.
The multiplicity of characters, too many of whom have equal weight, means that superficial characterization lacks convincing detail. The well-intentioned drama remains overly signaled and underdeveloped.
On the plus side, Meggido shows his work off to best possible advantage. Martin Thomas and lighting designer Howard Hudson turn the shoebox-sized Jermyn Street stage into an atmospheric theater, and the strong-voiced cast, backed by spry musical arrangements for piano, percussion and woodwind, give the material its full due.
The deft construction of the various plot elements into the opening musical sequence is enough to indicate Meggido’s understanding of musical theater. What’s yet to appear is an individual voice.