As British theater frets over representation of diversity — rightly so — Larry Gelbart and Cy Coleman’s jazz musical makes for canny programming from Donmar Warehouse boss Josie Rourke. A spoof with a serious side, it doubles as a Christmas treat and a cultural intervention, lampooning and lambasting Hollywood’s reductive cliches in equal measure. Ultimately, it’s art about art, with ciphers for characters and wisecracks for dialogue, but it’s hard to imagine it better staged than this. Rourke’s production — her first shot at a musical — looks like a dream and plays like a hoot, letting a knockout cast loose on knockabout comedy.
Gelbart’s book is a layered affair: Hadley Fraser plays Stine, a self-obsessed, insecure novelist struggling to compress his Chandleresque detective thriller into a shooting script. As he clackers away on his typewriter, his characters come to life — all reminiscent of, but reduced from, his real-life acquaintances.
Stone (Tam Mutu), Stine’s private eye protagonist (and fictional, far-better self), is tasked with tracking down the alluring Alaura Kingsley’s missing stepdaughter, Mallory (Samantha Barks). Only someone doesn’t want him nosing around, as the heavies that knock through his door, then his face, make quite clear. Might Alaura’s ancient billionaire husband, still just about breathing in his iron lung, have anything to do with it?
Already heaving with tropes — vamps, ingenues and two-bit broads fawn over Mutu’s rugged Hitchcockian hero — the novel needs further simplification to meet Hollywood standards imposed by producer Buddy Fiddler (Peter Polycarpou, husky and hilarious). Out go the racial politics, down plunge the necklines and Stine’s colourful, complex reality gets flattened into black and white, until even his characters rebel. No matter: Dissent can be crushed with the backspace key that — brilliantly — sends actors into rewind.
Gelbart makes his point early and his ciphers can’t sustain a second act that gets itself tangled. Small matter, given the style on show. Practically every other line cracks a laugh, and Coleman’s authentic jazz score is rich and infectious, combining variety with real integrity. Robert Jones’s crisp greyscale design, artfully lit by Howard Harrison, and Duncan Mclean’s colourful projections match them for class.
Nitpickers might argue that the show has its feminist cake and practically eats it off a scantily-clad Barks. Or that by giving its black chorus background roles, it replicates the problems it aims to point out. We still end with two white male protagonists singing each another’s praises in a buddy-buddy duet, “Without You I’m Nothing.”
But, hell, everyone’s having so much fun sending their stock through the roof that you can’t help but get swept along. Katherine Kelly vamp-oons to perfection as Alaura, bristling and rolling her eyes throughout, while Barks channels Marilyn Monroe, teasing out Mallory’s every word so that David Zippel’s lyrics emerge lipstick-stained. Rosalie Craig and Rebecca Trehearn, as Stine’s wife and mistress, show quite how much feeling you can cram into a song.
Spinning between these women — a different man with each — Fraser achieves real roundedness. He’s frazzled and self-pitying one moment, preening and cocksure the next. If only every character, regardless or gender or race, got such opportunities.