When last I saw The Official Tribute To The Blues Brothers in the West End in 1996 (already five years into its life), "dreary farrago" was only the most succinct of my condemnations of it. Another five years on, it returns to the Whitehall Theatre for (please God) its final appearance, and I can't even muster the energy to be angry.
My mistake last time was in assuming that there would be even the slightest vestige of a dramatic component to the evening. If you just go in expecting a workmanlike but mediocre R&B revue, your opinion of it might be a high as zero. Even the "police raid" has gone, though the rap version of "Two Little Boys" inexplicably remains. Simon Foster and Brad Henshaw as Elwood and Jake (more or less) do some in-character patter between songs, but it's really all about the music. So does the music cut the mustard?
Yes and no. Foster has a nice line in Dan Aykroyd-like bass vocals and poker face, and also blows a mean blues harp. Henshaw has stopped trying vocally, and sings the songs the way he wants to rather than the way the late John Belushi did (or would have done); he still does the moves and wears the suit, shades and (oddly misshapen) hat, but there's no real attempt at character in his singing. The band are younger than ever (like policemen) and are clearly proficient, but turn in a disturbingly slow, jackhammer arrangement of "Riot In Cell Block #9", and probably the most soulless "Do You Love Me" I've ever heard. The trio of Bluettes on backing vocals – Mike Henry, Alana Maria and Joe Speare – are hot, but (with the exception of Maria's powerful rendition of Aretha Franklin's "Think") their turns are entirely gratuitous and unrelated to canonical BB-dom.
The big selling point of this incarnation is the guest appearance of Antonio Fargas, better known as Huggy Bear from Starsky And Hutch. He grins and capers a treat, but knows that he can't really sing: he delivers as much of "Minnie The Moocher" as he can get away with in a kind of jive Sprechgesang, and sings as little of the encore of "Living In America" as he can get away with, full stop.
But the thing about this show is that it is explicitly an imitation of an imitation: an announcment before Foster and Henshaw abseil onto the stage declares that they are wanted for impersonating Elwood and Jake. It's like a forgery of a Warhol Brillo box, and what's the point of that except to make money? Even a normally enthusiastic press-night audience gave up on every clapalong within eight bars of the performers stopping their chivvying. Director David Leland must have fallen on hard artistic times indeed to have continued his association with the show for so long. Maybe "dreary farrago" isn't so wide of the mark after all.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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