London now has two blockbuster-scale tuners shamelessly embracing bad taste and spoofing genres in song while being endorsed by the institutions they lampoon. The first (vastly superior) one is the smash hit “The Book of Mormon.” The newcomer is “I Can’t Sing,” based on Simon Cowell’s “The X Factor,” and as you’d expect from something co-produced by Cowell’s entertainment org, Syco, it’s more celebration than takedown. As sloppy as it is boisterous, it’s a splashy, flashy tonal mess that just about succeeds since, if you throw this many gags at fan-based audiences, enough of them will land.
It’s clear from the impressive opening flashback sequence — with smart video imagery swooping down into the 1970s home of a short-haired kid dreamed of revolutionizing TV while living in suburbia on Waistband Avenue — that the show has its tongue wedged firmly in cheek. Preaching as it is to the choir, it then cheerfully sets up its heroine, Chenice (Cynthia Erivo), with the ideal contestant-backstory heartbreak: She lives in a trailer under a flight path with her grandfather, who’s in an iron lung (and promptly dies). Her only true companion is a talking dog.
Yes, you read that correctly, a talking dog — as (over)played by a puppet handler (Simon Lipkin), dressed in black, who runs around the stage, commenting sarcastically on Chenice’s activities, and who, for reasons never made clear, fancies the pants off Simon Cowell. He also tosses in knowing jokes like “It’s not exactly ‘War Horse,’ is it?” and a reference to “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” which are lost on the crowd.
That desire to go for lunacy while firing off any and every good or groan-worthy gag, regardless of suitability, is typical of the book by TV comedian Harry Hill. Robbed of his own accompanying onscreen charm, his script feels wearyingly self-satisfied, content merely to take the premise of “X Factor” excesses and go for one-off laughs, rather than building any kind of tension. No one was expecting high-concept artistic integrity, but the slack waywardness grows increasingly unsatisfying.
Moments of cheerfully absurd staging do threaten to take off. The best dance number is for an overweight Susan Boyle-esque supermarket assistant (sparky Katy Secombe) who dances with deliciously drab work colleagues and is carried sideways on a checkout conveyor belt. And there’s also an early ensemble number, “Please, Simon,” which pits all the wannabes against one another with just the right amount of punch.
But too many stagings of Steve Brown’s pastiche numbers start well but don’t achieve liftoff because the arrangements and choreography run out of steam. Chenice’s first-act rendition of the title number (which gets her into the competition) proves that, as revealed in the recent London preem of “The Color Purple,” Erivo has a powerhouse voice, but that’s the last we really hear of it until the curtain-call reprise. Her winning number, sounding like a too-generic reject from a post-win CD, simply doesn’t display her talent.
The design choices are often eye-rubbingly inconsistent. Why does costume designer Leah Archer suddenly dress the ensemble introducing the judges in gold plaits and horns, like escapees from Wagnerian opera? The directorial spirit at work seems to be: We have a budget that allows us to do anything, so why not? That, combined with the lack of controlled structure, means several performances ar encouraged to sail way over the top. Nigel Harman is a good lookalike Cowell but is pushed too hard, and although Victoria Elliott seizes moments as the big-haired judge clearly modeled on Newcastle-born Cheryl Cole, the script flogs her jokes to death.
Alongside Erivo’s, the best perfs come from those who work the least hard. Billy Carter gives an ideally ridiculous turn as the archer-than-thou producer, and Simon Bailey is very funny as host Liam O’Deary, a dead ringer for the real U.K. host Dermot O’Leary, famously given to hugging everyone on the show. There’s also Alan Morrissey as Chenice’s love interest, who rails against Cowell’s MOR tendencies and wants to sing his own songs (accompanied, natch, by his ukelele), finally gets to do so to touching effect, a rare calm moment in a largely hyperactive production.
The recent “Viva Forever,” the Spice Girls/TV-talent-show tuner spoof penned by TV comic Jennifer Saunders, died swiftly in a theater not much more than half the size of the 2,286-seat Palladium. But local reviews for “I Can’t Sing,” though mixed, have been stronger than anticipated, and Cowell’s pockets are famously deep. Still, popular though its source material undoubtedly is, a satire of something that its non-traditional theater audience can stay home to watch free of charge may prove a tough sell.