Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK; August 30, 2011
Nominated for four Academy Awards, “Top Hat” is one of the best, and certainly the most successful of the nine movies that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together. Now, 76 years after its release, Matthew White and Howard Jacques have decided the time is right for a live version.
The story translates to the stage well. It’s a typical mistaken-identity plot that makes full use of all the opportunities that brings. Dale Tremont (Summer Strallen) assumes that American entertainer Jerry Travers (Tom Chambers) is in fact his business manager Horace Hardwick, husband of her friend Madge. Dale also has a jealous suitor, Italian fashion designer Alberto (“For the woman the kiss - for the man the sword”) Beddini. Of course it all ends happily, thanks largely to some last-minute quick thinking by Horace’s valet Bates.
What this adaptation really has going for it, of course, is Irving Berlin’s wonderful music, re-orchestrated especially for the show and superbly played by a 14-piece band under musical director Dan Jackson. A shame, then, that it was over-amped on occasions, even succeeding in almost drowning out some of the tap. Alongside “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)”, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)”, “No Strings”, “Cheek to Cheek”, “The Piccolino” and the eponymous “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails”, all classics from the film, White has added other gems including “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (both originally from “Follow the Fleet”), “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (“The Cocoanauts”), and “Better Luck Next Time” (“Easter Parade”). All have been, the music retains all Berlin’s down-to-earth, naturalistic style. The additions gel nicely, all emerging naturally from the story.
Equally outstanding are the designs. 2011 Laurence Olivier Award Winner Hildegard Bechtler has produced a beautiful art deco set that changes seamlessly between London parks, hotels and St. Mark’s Square in Venice. There’s even an interlude on an airplane. Jon Morrell’s costumes include some delicious dresses of the period. Bill Deamer makes use of iconic images such as the backbend that finishes “Cheek to Cheek” in choreography that generally hits the mark, although the use of women in the ensemble for “Top Hat” looked decidedly odd.
In the programme, Fred Astaire’s daughter Ava comments that her main reservation about the production was that whoever played the male lead should not play her father but the character of Jerry Travis, the character he played in the film. It’s a great sentiment and she is absolutely correct, but it is impossible to escape the great man. His presence is writ through the show. Chambers, star of BBC hit dramas Holby City and Waterloo Road, and a former “Strictly Come Dancing” winner, tries very hard, but sadly comes up short. His tap dancing is very good, but elsewhere he looks very stiff and lacks the lightness and glide that much of Deamer’s dance calls for. His accent was also somewhat awry, neither American nor English, and there was a lack of chemistry between him and Strallen who clearly revelled in the Ginger Rogers role. This lady can certainly dance and sing, even if I could have done without some of the vibrato she likes to slip in.
Elsewhere there were solid performances from Martin Ball, who increasingly reminded me of Rex Harrison in his prime, and Vivian Parry, who play the Hardwicks. Both showed great comic timing, especially in Act II. There are some great one liners, especially for Madge. “I came handsomely out of my first marriage,” she announces, “I got custody of his money.” Funniest moments though came from Ricardo Afonso who played the crazy Italian Alberto Beddini. Sounding for all the world like Captain Bertorelli from the BBC sitcom “‘Allo ‘Allo” his mannerisms, accent, misquoting of idioms and general murdering of the English language had the audience in stitches on several occasions. Stephen Boswell’s drole Bates, Horace Hardwick’s valet was also a delight.
Despite the reservations there is plenty to enjoy here. “Top Hat” makes for a fun evening. Despite running for nigh on two and three-quarter hours it never dragged for a second. And I guarantee that you will leave the theatre humming the numbers and remembering the lines. “Top Hat” continues on tour to Southampton, Salford, Plymouth, Norwich, Canterbury, Edinburgh and Leeds. See http://www.tophatonstage.com