In the past month, two musicals have got me up on my feet and dancing all the way out to the bar. At Five Guys Named Moe, I joined a conga line at the interval after attempting to singalong Calypso-style to “Push Ka Pi Shi Pie”. At Hair, I flailed around at the finale to “Let the Sunshine In”, a chorus I know by heart (not that that requires much in the memory department).
For all their apparent differences, these two musicals share other qualities to recommend them too. Both capture a distinct period in 20th-century American culture. Both are non-stop songfests (or, another way of saying, short on book: so don’t come expecting deep narrative). And both are full-on immersive evenings in brilliantly custom-fit venues.
Clark Peters‘ Five Guys Named Moe, first seen in the West End in 1990, celebrates the 1930s and 1940s jazz, blues and swing classics of American bandleader Louis Jordan. Peters, who also starred in the original, has assembled an exuberant young quintet to play the Moes – Ian Carlyle, Idriss Kargbo, Horace Oliver, Emile Ruddock and Dex Lee (I find it impossible to tear my eyes away from Lee whenever he’s onstage: the picture of suave) – who nurse drunkard Nomax (Edward Baruwa) through the wee hours of a break-up and reckoning.
Most spectacular about this production is its setting. Producers Underbelly and Cameron Mackintosh have christened the new, temporary Marble Arch Theatre in a specially erected Spiegeltent in the centre of the roundabout at the Marble Arch corner of Hyde Park. And it truly is a little slice of Americana – a roaring jazz club, friendly French Quarter style bar and a tuck shop stuffed with sweeties from my homeland, including my favourite Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. As my partner Peter said on the night, “I had no idea you could get to New Orleans on the Jubilee Line.” I can confirm that, until February, you definitely can.
Meanwhile, Hair is recreating the 1967 Summer of Love in The Vaults in American hippy fashion. Les Enfants Terribles with its promenade, underground Alice in Wonderland. Now that that production has moved out, Aria Entertainment’s Katy Lipson and her Hair co-producers have taken full ownership of the “front of house” space in this section of the tunnels beneath Waterloo Train Station. It’s a psychedelic cove of anti-war posters, tee-pees and spiritual chill-out zones.
Even more spectacularly, though, is what designer Maeve Black has achieved inside the actual theatre auditorium where colourful streamers line the walls and ceiling, making us all feel warmly cocooned in the womb of The Tribe. (And very cosy too in a usually draughty theatre, which I’m sure the actors appreciate when it comes time to strip off at the end of Act One!)
I’ve seen several productions of Hair over the years. It’s always good to watch how a new generation of young people make their mark on this seminal Sixties musical about one of the last century’s most renowned youth movements. Director Jonathan O’Boyle and his long-locked company have done so with panache, adding a few modern political references (including a Donald Trump audio cameo to open) to make this 50th-anniversary revival feel all the more timely.
Mel Brooks‘ Young Frankenstein is the latest big West End musical offering. I really enjoyed The Producers when it had its UK premiere at Drury Lane (was that really 13 years ago?!) .
Anyone who saw that or indeed any of Brooks’ madcap comedies onscreen will no doubt know what to expect – and political correctness is not on the list. For me, particularly coming in the wake of Harvey Weinstein and snowballing harassment scandals, a lot of the sexual and misogynistic humour fell flat – nowhere more so than in Frau Blucher’s ode to her violently abusive relationship with the late, original Dr Frankenstein, “He Vas My Boyfriend” – but I seemed to be very much in the minority on the night I attended.
Whether you feel comfortable with the laughs or not, it’s great to see musical performers like Hadley Fraser (as Frederick Frankenstein), Dianne Pilkington (his fiancee Elizabeth – nailing imposed ‘frigidity’ in “Please Don’t Touch Me”), Summer Strallen (his scantily clad and randy assistant Inga) and Lesley Joseph (Frau Blucher) back in the West End in nice juicy starring roles. And, having not seen him in Brooks’ touring production of The Producers, comedian Ross Noble was a real revelation as the goofily loyal hunchbacked sidekick Igor. More musicals, please, Ross.