Compilation musicals normally stick to "legends" (i.e. dead guys) from the mainstream: Louis Jordan, Elvis, even Billy Fury. It is a real curiosity to see a show based on the work of such a sardonic, acerbic songwriter as Randy Newman, still more one which features the clean-cut Belinda Lang. Whatever next, one wonders: Zoe Wanamaker sings Loudon Wainwright III? Felicity Kendal as Dusty Springfield in The Pet Shop Boys Story? (Better not give Bill Kenwright any ideas...)
In some respects, Newman's songs work rather better in a stage context than on record. Putting his usually twisted sentiments into the mouths of obvious characters gets rid of the problem which has dogged him throughout his career: that of people missing the irony and believing that he means what he sings. Here, then, "Sail Away" – a song depicting America as the land of opportunity for slaves – is sung by Paul J. Medford with discreet incredulity as a venomous rebuttal of the earlier "Follow The Flag", and "Short People" is a plainly ludicrous attempt to fasten on a convenient hate group. (The show's printed set list even includes the scabrous "Rednecks" – with its chorus "We don't know our ass from a hole in the ground/And we're keeping the niggers down" – but the team evidently felt that this was rather too much to get away with.)
Whilst the songs take up 99% of the narrative burden, however (seldom if ever are more than three lines spoken between numbers), the story itself is thin and sometimes contrived. As the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl curve progresses, for instance, an identical twin to the godly Marie is introduced solely to facilitate a clutch of cynical female-voice numbers. On the other hand, it is a delicious move to deck Medford out in twinkling red horns and tail to deliver infernal ripostes to Marie's songs of devotion.
Medford's performance is the greatest success of the 85-minute show; he has a wonderful voice, and elevates bar-owner Mikey from a mere observer into a character in his own right. George Costigan as Randy is less certain, veering from more or less straight agony to buffoonery; his upper register has the hoarse sincerity of a Jimmy Nail, with the weaknesses as well as the strengths of such a voice. Belinda Lang seems oddly under-energised throughout, whether as Marie or her twin, betraying a possible lack of direction from Chris Bond.
Costigan and Lang performed their first Newman assemblage nine years ago at Stratford East: it died the death. They obviously believe in his songwriting talents, and rightly so, but something, somewhere, is missing from Roll With The Punches. I would hate to think that the bill of fare is too rich for musical theatre, but the whole remains maddeningly less than the sum of its parts. Still, even such a "nearly" show proves that Randy Newman has much, much more to offer than (the thankfully excluded) "Simon Smith And His Amazing Dancing Bear".
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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