My colleague Simon Reade, reviewing A Tribute To The Blues Brothers (now anointed with "official" status) for another publication on its first West End appearance in 1991, described it as "a couple of charisma-free lads... wearing Mister Byrite suits". Any minor changes made in the interim would seem to be for the worse. Really, writing a scathing review of this dreary farrago is like shooting fish in a barrel. I'm not sure I can even be bothered.
Yes, I can. The six-piece backing band – kitted out to look like anonymous sidemen rather than the shaggy beasts who formed the original Brothers' combo – are entirely proficient at chugging out soul and R&B grooves, but quite lacking in spontaneous combustion. A trio of backing singers, the Bluettes, has been added so that these black dudes (and one dudess) can handle the Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Cab Calloway numbers: of these three, Ronnie Dangerfield looks somewhere between a young Marvin Gaye and Leee John of Imagination and makes a slightly awkward sex-god, and Michelle Dixon is rather too ready to equate muzzle velocity with overall fire-power.
The would-be Brothers themselves first appear in stagehands' overalls, bantering about setting up the affair as they Velcro-stick letters onto a huge board proudly proclaiming B UES BROHTERS. These few minutes, followed by a brief police raid around the auditorium, are the only substantial concessions to any kind of performance other than that of a semi-tightly drilled gig; all other references to "Jake" and "Elwood" being wannabes have now been expunged.
Simon J. Foster as Elwood begins with a nice line in stone-faced, basso Dan Aykroydisms and blows a pretty mean blues harp, but his higher register is weak and prey to phoney emotional phrasing. Brad Henshaw as Jake, especially on his solo-vocal-and-piano number, sounds like a clean-living Joe Cocker. Their comic business carries that fatal odour of mock clumsiness clumsily executed. And can someone please explain what on earth possessed them to include a rap version of "Two Little Boys"?
Any Blues Brothers show – even that which Aykroyd and the late John Belushi's brother Jim are now rumoured to have revived – is an imitation of a show which was itself an imitation. As such, it is entirely dependent upon a willing audience; without a houseful of hard-core devotees to crank up the charge, it loses its entire point. On the press night, the only porkpie hat or skinny black tie in evidence in the audience was on the poor lad who had won a newspaper competition to appear onstage with the Brothers (one could not help but wonder whether the second prize was to appear for two nights). I saw only one punter spontaneously and enthusiastically jittering in her seat: a very tall woman who, naturally, happened to be directly in front of me. The rest of the house obligingly stood up and twitched in their places for the closing numbers, but only after active exhortations to do so.
Original director David Leland must find himself faced with the quandary of taking continued royalties from the show which apparently bears little relation even to its threadbare incarnation of five years ago, or removing his name altogether from such a vacuous charade. Head 'em up, move 'em out.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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