By Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane. Adaptor / Director: Jay James-Moody. Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre. Seymour Centre. 17 March – 15 April, 2023
Reviewed : March 22, 2023*
This cleverly adapted and skilfully directed production zooms along at a tightly controlled pace. It takes the ideas of the original 1960s musical fantasy and brings them cunningly into the 21st century without losing the any of the romantic whimsy and music of the original book and score or the 1970s movie.
Inspired by the idea of Michael Mayer’s 2011 Broadway adaptation, Jay James-Moody has split the original female lead, Daisy, into a male and female character, then contemporised the production in order to “to explore themes more relevant to our present times”. Daisy in his adaptation becomes David, a gay thirty-year-old engaged to a Warren who hides his sexuality.
The idea works – probably because the plot is so implausible …
Psychiatrist Dr Mark Bruckner becomes interested in David Gamble when he accidentally hypnotises him in a demonstration lecture. Further ‘sessions’ reveal not only David’s (sometimes called Daisy) strange abilities, like making flowers grow quickly or predicting when a phone is about to ring … but the fact that the spirit of Melinda Welles, who died in the 1920s, inhabits David when he is under hypnosis. Still mourning his recently lost wife, Bruckner falls for the beautiful Melinda, just as David begins to fall for Bruckner.
There are other parallels too. David’s strained relationship with his fiancé Warren is similar to Melinda’s relationship with her controlling husband Edward. David’s search for himself compares with Melinda’s determination to retain her individuality. And behind it all is the inherent danger of hypnosis and using psychoanalysis to explore repressed memories.
There is also some comedy … and the delight of Burton’s music (played by a four piece combo of keyboard, drums, cello and double bass led by Natasha Aynsley), a surprising and colourful set (Michael Hankin) that blooms with ever-increasing window boxes of flowers, and a lighting design in which James Wallis ingeniously matches the whimsy and fantasy of the plot.
And, of course, there’s the busy, hard-working cast.
Adaptor/director James-Moody himself takes on the role of David Gamble. James-Moody brings a vast experience across musical theatre to this role – and indeed the whole production. Perhaps it is that experience and his perceptive vision that makes the contemporary context work.
His performance as David is understated and beguiling. He creates a character who is unassuming, perplexed, and just a little gauche, who stands on the brink of relationships, unsure of himself, but always anxious to do the right thing. He uses comic timing – in a reaction, a quizzical smile, a tilt of the chin – to enrich the character. And he sings and harmonises beautifully.
As does Madeleine Jones as Melinda Welles, especially in the finale of the first act, where she sings with Mark and David in a cunningly directed threesome. Jones finds all the grace and style of the 1920s as she creates a feminist femme fatale who is anxious to live again in a time that is more liberated. She moves elegantly on the stage, appearing almost ghost-like at first, then finding other dimensions, especially when she expounds the expectations of women of her time when she sings Don’t Tamper with My Sister…
“don’t stab at her, don’t grab at her.
Don’t tamper with my sister
On a public walke”.
Blake Bowden plays Mark Bruckner as a clinician whose usual confidence and pragmatism has been skewed by his recent loss. Bowden finds that juxtaposition in a performance that moves between reality and wistfulness, logic and illogic, assurance and yearning, each of which are exemplified in – and influenced by – his relationship with David, and his fixation with Melinda. Bowden is a confident performer – and his duets with James-Moody and Jones, especially in the title song, are well executed.
James Haxby plays David’s gender-unsure fiancé Warren and Melinda’s arrogant, 1920s chauvinist husband Edward. Billie Palin, Natalie Abbott and Lincoln Elliot take on a variety of smaller roles that amplify the scenes. They are especially appealing as David’s friends Muriel, Millie and Flora who, along with Haxby, bring moments of fun as they sing, dance … and change the scenes and the set. The choreography (Leslie Bell) seems simple, but it is expertly tied to the lilt of the music and the caprice of the fantasy.
The production sits remarkably well on the stage of the Reginald Theatre. It is a small theatre, but its deep stage allows for imaginative sets and carefully concealed entrances. Its height provides a lofty orchestra space and allows for imaginative lighting and effects. This production takes advantage of both. It’s well directed, well acted , well staged … and if it’s also a bit quirky, isn’t that something we all need just now?
* Opening night