GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES
Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London NW1
Opened 23 July, 1998

Actually, most of us on the press night gentlemen, ladies and critics alike seemed to prefer the distinctly un-blonde Debby Bishop in the best friend/chaperone role to Sara Crowe's rather lifeless Lorelei Lee.

Jule Styne and Leo Robin's 1949 musical of Anita Loos's classic 1920s novel ought to have enough pizzazz to raise the roof (possibly an ill-considered phrase for this particular venue), but tails off after the interval into a perfunctorily connected series of solo spots and contrived set-pieces, racing from cue to cue. In Ian Talbot's production, however, even the first act set on a luxury liner lumbers somewhat. Paul Farnsworth's Art Deco set and Catherine Jayes's musical direction are perfectly fine, Lisa Kent's choreography a little on the basic side, but the most serious deficiency is in the vibrancy department.

As Lorelei wangles her way across the Atlantic to Paris, into possession of an aristocratic English battleaxe's tiara and finally to the altar with her "daddy", button king Gus Esmond Jr, an atmosphere of Prohibition-era high jinks ought to predominate the opening number, for heaven's sake, exhorts, "let's get stinking". Yet, although almost all the right moves are made, we never lose the knowledge that we are merely watching people pretending to enjoy themselves. Crowe, unsure whether to play Lorelei as an outright vamp or a hard-edged innocent, falls between the two stools with an air of bewilderment and an unhelpful Sandra Dickinson voice, and is comprehensively outshone by Bishop as her right-hand girl. The upper-crust Brits are a cartoon middle-aged bounder and his equally two-dimensional foghorn-voiced wife; the fitness fiend with whom Lorelei takes up goes through his calisthenic motions and munches on his raw carrots without relish; the second-act French solicitor and his son speak in annoying strangulated falsettos. Not even the effortless energy and angelically sweet voice of Clive Rowe as Esmond can inject life into the proceedings.

The musical numbers themselves are lively and aware of their character as pastiches, and of course everyone knows "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend". But as the show lurches towards its programmed close, the traditional Regent's Park chill is not at all dispelled by any warmth emanating from the production.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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