Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London NW1
Opened 26 July, 1996

You feel that something is fundamentally amiss the moment you realise that you are hearing the number "Wand'rin' Star" rather than feeling it insinuate itself through the soles of your shoes. But Lerner and Loewe's musical was given a thorough seeing-to in all respects for its screen version: new songs, an entirely rewritten book and even lyrics which have been more than merely tweaked the aforementioned number, in its original manifestation, is much less misanthropic than the version we know through Lee Marvin's seismic rumble.

This is quite surprising, as the stage show contains more than its fair share of perversity: a gold-rush community of hundreds of womanless men (well, eight or nine on this particular stage) complain at length about the difficulty of keeping their hands, etcetera, off boss-man Ben Rumson's 16-year-old daughter; the matter is later eased when a passing bigamous Mormon sells off his number two wife; love, for young Jennifer Rumson, means happily washing the grimy laundry of your swain the fact that the lad in question is Mexican and thus forced to live several miles outside town hardly rates a blip on the impropriety meter.

The show's perspective on dreams of achievement, and the importance of finding human rather than mineral riches, never quite comes into focus, and these shortcomings are exacerbated by Ian Talbot's production. Trying to create a squalid shanty town in the comparatively idyllic setting of Regent's Park makes for a clashing contrast; small-band arrangements of swirling, panoramic numbers like "They Call The Wind Maria" cannot sound other than small. The varying musical abilities of this year's company constitute a third fairly hefty strike against the enterprise.

Tony Selby as Ben is a lovable rogue, at his best when underplaying punchlines or indulging in a spot of the Judge Roy Beans, and altogether less certain when forced to confront the occasional high note; Claire Carrie as his daughter Jennifer is a specimen of implausibly buxom and musically strident jailbait. Chook Sibtain as the romantically smouldering Julio has a striking enough presence to offset a Hispanic accent halfway into Manuel-the-waiter territory.

One or two sequences sparkle a mock-prayerful musical trio between Mormon Jacob and his two warring wives, for instance, and a music-hall sequence which intimates that Californian showgirls invented the can-can some years before their counterparts in the Moulin Rouge. Overall, though, the show is uncomfortably in keeping with the associations of its only number known to today's youngsters: on the "juke box jury" segment of a BBC children's television show, an unfavourable verdict on a record would be heralded by a snatch of "Hand Me Down That Can O'Beans". Sitting in the gathering dusk of Regent's Park, I found myself sadly agreeing with Trev and Simon: on this occasion, I'm afraid it's "beans".

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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