The great showman famously grew this show from the shoots of his signature number. In its first incarnation in Las Vegas it ran an hour and I confess, although aspiring showgirl Lola certainly has a life ‘crowded with incident’, they could have been crammed into nearer one hour than three.
It’s not for lack of oomph, panache or a terrific sense of fun. Director Craig Revel Horwood runs this show with all his usual trademarks and as usual has assembled a crack cast of actor/musicians. And Diego Pitarch has again designed a set with height and depth that magically transforms the Watermill’s tiny intimate stage into that iconic New York Club, another in Cuba and a New York apartment, even housing a baby grand centre stage, thanks to a revolve.
There’s plenty of highs in this tale within a tale of Stephen the aspiring young composer whose characters materialise around him – starting with the two gorgeous showgirls (Cassie Pearson and aptly named Sally Peerless) deliciously filling true Follies regalia and who sing as they dance as they play their instruments. Stephen’s musical is set in 1947 where his alter ego is Tony, songwriter moonlighting as bartender.
Kookie, rookie showgirl Lola erupts into his life and love blossoms when he successfully reversions her audition number – but not before she tries her own OTT version clambering on to a succession of audition pianos and trying for glass-shattering top notes. Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Lola effectively seizes these comedy plums and does get the chance to prove she’s in great voice. Edward Baker-Duly’s attractive stage presence matches her well. And one good reason for choosing Copacabana is to give Watermill stalwart Karen Mann another great comic turn – decked out in tutu and suspenders as Gladys the “mature” hat-check girl and Lola’s confidante.
There’s darkness too when Lola finds herself in a Havana far from the party atmosphere of the Havana trip in Guys and Dolls. Rico, the villain from verse two of Manilow’s song, drugs and abducts her and brushes aside his long-term squeeze and star Conchita (Basienka Blake oozing sultry stage presence) and rape and murder are hinted at.
Antony Reed exudes some menace as Rico, but somehow this attempt at a darker story sits uneasily with the fun at the Copacabana, and the derring do as Tony and Sam the Copacabana’s manager (appealing Julian Littman) dash to her rescue, though the lyrics of the eponymous song call for this story.
The third verse has a faded alcoholic Lola at the Copacabana, sans Tony, sans youth, sans everything. Happily thirty years later in the show, she is reincarnated as Stephen’s wife – and trusty Gladys and Sam get to do a comic turn as her parents.
There’s no doubt the audience had a ball at the Copacabana on press night. But could the fun seem a bit forced, the book too contrived and the music unmemorable, despite Sarah Travis’s usual glorious arrangements, wonderfully realised by MD Neil McDonald and the company?