No West End show has ever attempted to pep up a finale by slowly lowering a giant orange papier-mache parrot over the auditorium, then equally slowly raising it up. Then again, there’s never been a show made up of a string of disco hits by Boney M. Perspicacious readers might consider that parrots and the back catalog of the ’70s/’80s Europop sensation have hitherto been mutually exclusive. And they’d be right. But on the flaccid evidence of “Daddy Cool,” its creators clearly have expended no energy on something so footling as logical connection or, indeed, drama.
Instead of going the “Jersey Boys” route with a show-and-tell on the real-life backstory of the group (a confection by record producer Frank Farian of backup singers fronted by black dancers), the show meanders through a fictional plot in which an idealistic young guy in one gang falls in love with an innocent young girl from a rival clan. The guys’ loathing is mutual, they fight, a best friend gets killed. Ring any bells?
Yes, we’re back with a retread of “Romeo and Juliet.” And it doesn’t seem to have troubled the creatives that the altogether more daring “West Side Story” got there first. But that earlier show had no parrot. If only they’d thought of a happy ending in which everyone imagines going to the Caribbean for carnival…
In the program, producer Robert Mackintosh (brother of the more famous Cameron), underlines the idea of “creating a truly multicultural and contemporary musical.” Accordingly, his creation has a talented and largely black cast letting rip with a mix of sounds from gospel to rap, hip-hop and beyond. Given theatrical imagination — and a sound design that, unlike here, didn’t favor instruments over voices — it could have amounted to something.
So what of those Boney M songs like “Mary’s Boy Child” and “Brown Girl in the Ring” and other assorted Farian hits? The way they’re interleaved into what’s laughingly known as the book makes “Mamma Mia!” look like Tom Stoppard. How can we get the song “Sunny” in? Make that the name of our hero! How can we work in “Ra-Ra-Rasputin?” That can be the name of his record producer!
Originally billed as “The Hot New Musical,” its producers had a change of heart. By the time previews began — it was postponed for four months, then again for two weeks — it was “London’s Coolest Musical.” That confusion over temperature is typical of the whole show. One minute it wants to be gritty and contemporary — love destroyed (almost) by urban violence and simmering revenge — while the next it’s just a celebration of pop at its most danceably vacuous.
The combination kills both. On the gritty side, these gangs swagger and threaten, but even though the bad guys are based at a lap-dancing club, there’s no nudity, less swearing and not even a whiff of drugs.
As for the silly side, the show is at its best when choreographer Sean Cheeseman puts the company through MTV-video style routines. The energized disco sequence of “Baby Do You Want to Bump” and “Daddy Cool” that closes the first act is spurious, but at least it’s fun. It also has the evening’s only effective lighting and boasts the only proper button to a number. But the choreography is ineffectual whenever it has anything even vaguely to do with storytelling. “Take the Heat Off Me,” they sing in the club. What heat?
And speaking of the club, it’s called Ma Baker, after the song and the show’s chief villainess. Former soap star Michelle Collins play her with a dead-behind-the-eyes laziness. But even if she’d shaped up, the show still would have been stolen by Melanie La Barrie as Sunny’s mother. With her powerhouse singing of “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” we get a glimpse of what might have been.
U.K. pop artists Harvey and Javine pump up the energy from time to time, but they’re only in supporting roles. Dwayne Wint fares better as Sunny. At what is supposed to be the climax, he is falsely imprisoned for murder (cue heartbreak song). Seconds later, he walks on in the finale in front of the actual murderer, and everyone smiles and makes up. When the script refuses to take its character even remotely seriously, how is the audience supposed to do so? it’s hard for the audience to do likewise.