Review: ‘Top Hat’

'Top Hat'

The result is smart in every sense -- not least because of beautifully unified work by the design team -- but the shiny evening never quite hits giddy joy.

As Irving Berlin almost wrote, “Anything Ken Ludwig can do, we can do better.” Ludwig added Gershwin brothers’ back catalog songs to a refashioned version of their “Girl Crazy” to create “Crazy for You.” Hoping for a similar smash, writers Matthew White and Howard Jacques have sewn 11 Berlin songs into the 1935 Astaire-Rogers movie “Top Hat.” The result is smart in every sense — not least because of beautifully unified work by the design team — but the shiny evening never quite hits giddy joy. What should seem effortless looks the opposite.

Happily, the writers have sharpened dialogue and interpolated nicely fashioned jokes — including Ginger Rogers’ own “I did everything he did, only backwards and in heels” — but the plot remains the same. In the Astaire role of Jerry Travers, Tom Chambers is the Broadway star who flagrantly woos and is on the brink of winning lovely Dale Tremont (Summer Strallen), who is less than impressed when she “discovers” that Jerry is married to her best friend Madge (Vivien Parry). Dale, of course, has her wires crossed.

It is, in other words, a mistaken identity farce, a form that, on screen or stage, needs to keep moving. This one not only dawdles, it keeps stopping for songs. But oh, what songs.

Recognizing that a stage tuner needs to open big to get the audience on its side, this version kicks off with a bonanza version of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Tap is choreographer Bill Deamer’s strongest suit, and the sheer sound of slamming shoes and canes, plus the nonstop smiling vitality of the dancers, is winning. But in a sign of things to come, the number is better at gleaming display than it is on accelerating energy.

The number also showcases Chambers’ significant strength: his exuberant yet elegant dancing prowess. The runaway 2008 winner of BBC’s “Strictly Come Dancing” (the U.K. version of “Dancing With the Stars”), he has a fanbase that will lap up his seriously entertaining tap skills.

But his box office pull comes at a price: He is no triple threat. Smiling gamely throughout and adopting an Astaire-style nasal delivery cannot mask the fact that his voice lacks sweetness and power. There’s a sense that the creative team know it, since in a couple of numbers they cleverly add bellhops and maids to turn a solo into an ensemble number.

The heart of the story is the happiness the two leads create together, but when Chambers and Strallen, two accomplished dancers, duet, nothing emotional actually seems to happen.

Willowy, highly experienced Strallen looks lovely and can fling her left leg 180 degrees in the air without a second thought, but it’s as if she’s dancing for points. Instead of showing the ecstasy that would tip her body into a luxuriantly deep back bend, we’re simply left admiring her technique. Only in the witty stop-start competitiveness of their first duet, “Isn’t It a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain),” does their emotional connection prove infectious.

In all other departments, the show comes up gleaming, not least in the supporting players, all of whom make delicious mountains out of molehills. Vivien Parry lands every line and look, making a great comedy dragon of her character Madge, partnered by a ceaselessly delightful Martin Ball in the role of the philandering producer husband. And when Ricardo Afonso as the preposterous Italian fashion designer launches into his terrific comedy number “Latins Know How” — a terrific comic striptease — you suddenly realize what’s been missing all night: really strong singing.

That’s a shame, since Chris Walker’s arrangements and orchestrations — filled with lovely, jazz-era clarinet, sax and muted trumpet — are ideally nostalgic, especially under the crisp baton of Dan Jackson.

White’s production benefits enormously from Hildegard Bechtler’s handsome, art-deco sets. Burnished by Peter Mumford’s chic lighting, her curved walls cunningly reposition themselves for the story’s multiple locations and offer permanently elegant backdrops for Jon Morrell’s costumes. The latter understandably copies the infamous shimmer of feathers that Rogers wore for “Cheek to Cheek,” but everywhere else he’s his own man, cleaving to Schiaparelli-esque period elegance and sunny pastels and straw hats for the Venetian scenes.

That ability to stay true to the source while reinventing it is indicative of the piece as a whole. The creatives have impressively reignited Berlin’s back catalog. It’s just the delivery which is, for the moment, a little lacking.

Top Hat

Aldwych Theater, London; 1,154 seats, £65 $105 top


A Kenneth Wax, Stewart F. Lane/Bonnie Comley, Ted Hartley, Flora Suk-Hwa Yoon & Lee Menzies presentation by arrangement with RKO Pictures, Warner Bros. Theater Ventures and the Irving Berlin Music Co. of a musical in two acts based on RKO's motion picture, screenplay by Dwight Taylor & Allan Scott adapted for the stage by Matthew White and Howard Jacques; music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Directed by Matthew White, choreographed by Bill Deamer. Musical direction, Dan Jackson.


Sets, Hildegard Bechtler; costumes, Jon Morrell; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, Gareth Owen; musical supervision, Richard Balcombe; orchestrations and arrangements, Chris Walker; production stage manager, Jonathan Oliver. Opened, reviewed May 9, 2012. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.


Jerry Travers - Tom Chambers
Dale Trenmont - Summer Strallen
Horace Hardwick - Martin Ball
Madge Hardwick - Vivien Parry
Alberto Beddini - Ricardo Afonso
Bates - Stephen Boswell
With Lucy Jane Adcock, Lauren Appleby, Caroline Bateson, Jeremy Batt, Alan Burkitt, Hannah Cauchi, Matthew Cheney, Russell Leighton Dixon, Charlotte Gale, Ian Goss, Fenton Gray, Alyn Hawke, Paul Kemble, Jenny Legg, Martin McCarthy, Grace McKee, Carly Meyers, Kay Murphy, Tom Partridge, Adam Rhys-Charles, Holly Rostron, Charles Ruhrmund, John Stacey, Callum Train, Alexandra Waite Roberts.

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