Friday, 22 October 2010

Me and Juliet ***

The small Finborough Theatre has been home to many successful shows in the past, including another Rogers and Hammerstein musical, State Fair, in 2009 which was also directed by Thom Southerland. The show was received so well it was transferred to the West End at Trafalgar Studios.  A repeat of this seems unlikely for the entertaining and innovative Me and Juliet.
The cast give superb performances all round with the characterization utterly convincing, which is truly remarkable for a show where some of the characters are only on stage for a short time. Stephen McGlynn succeeds in making you hate his self-obsessed character after his first scene and Jodie Jacobs characterises the ambitious Betty and bounces her off Dafydd Howells’ authoritative Mac, bringing out the nuances in both of their characters. The quality performances are almost too many to name as I could list each cast member individually but I think that a standout mention has to be given to Robert Hands’ Larry. From his first song (‘That’s the Way it Happens’) you can see that he has a talent for using the music to highlight and advance his characterisation. He captured the defining moments of struggle and strength in Larry’s journey with assured naturalism so that you never doubted the reality for a second. His relationship with Laura Main’s timid and impressionable Jeanie is delicately played and fashioned with the tenderness that you would expect of the pair if you were to meet them backstage of a real show.
The abilities of each individual seemed to multiply when they were on stage as a group; the show really is a masterclass in ensemble musical theatre. The ease with which the cast handles the various transitions between scenes, characters and even musical numbers is remarkable. If anyone is in any doubt about the advantages of ensemble theatre in any form I recommend keeping an eye on Thom Southerland, who seems to have a knack for it.
The stage was set for the action in what nobody could doubt as being an ingenious use of what little space was available. The small stage was full of surprising innovations; it seemed like every time the scene changed another part of the wall had become a table or a desk or a dressing room station. Curtains falling from the ceiling acted as neat partitions when coupled with the smart and flawless lighting setup. When I arrived to secure my booking on what was set to be the first night I was told that the opening had been postponed due to technical difficulties. Having seen the remarkable use of the space that doesn’t surprise me at all, though there was absolutely no technical difficulty on stage as the ensemble neatly maneuvered around the ever changing set with precision and confidence; testament to the skill of Thom Southerland and his design team.
Another remarkable use of the space was the jazzy choreography. Being someone who is easily impressed when it comes to showy dancing I must admit to having thoroughly enjoyed what was a veritable cavalcade of dance numbers, including hats and canes, maracas and even what was a delightful, if noisy, tap routine.
Welcomed into the auditorium to the piano already playing, the masterful Joseph Atkins at the keys, is a better way to enter a theatre than most and it was a pleasing harbinger of what was to come. The arrangements gave the actors a chance to really enjoy themselves and even though I was present on an evening where the audience were something of a lackluster giant the fun that the ensemble were having performing the numbers rubbed off on the audience. Numbers such as ‘Keep it Gay’ and ‘That’s the Way it Happens’ showcase the quirkiness of the show with bouncing rhythms and intelligent phrasing, while ‘The Big Black Giant’ speaks in a more melodious way of the passage of time and audiences in general; ‘Intermission Talk’ could have been written by Sondheim for all the more unusual rhymes and rhythms.
Production and music aside, however, the show lacks a certain depth. The story is too simple with very little by way of subplot and very little, even, by way of primary plot. It’s in a very matter-of-fact way that we find out that it’s been five months since Betty joined the company and that Larry and Jeanie had fallen in love and were married in the morning. There was very little build up to this at all, which was perhaps necessary.
The shortage of any engaging plot seems odd, especially since the second act felt very short. Development was definitely needed and I think that there was plenty of room for it to be included. It had the feeling of a script that couldn’t match up to the music quite so easily and even though there were some strong numbers in the score, there were also some weaker numbers. Richard Rogers said that in writing Me and Juliet they wanted to ‘have some fun’, and the show, as a whole, is certainly fun. Unfortunately, neither the book nor the lyrics is able to match the brilliance with which the ensemble brought them to life.

Written by Rogers and Hammerstein; directed by Thom Southerland at the Finborough Theatre; musical direction by Joseph Atkins; choreography by Sally Brooks.

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