It's difficult to resist calling Beautiful and Damned more damned than beautiful, but then this is a musical that never meets a cliché it doesn't like and rushes headlong to embrace, so I'm in good company. And as much as I would like to be able to welcome a new, British-originated musical on Shaftesbury Avenue that features an original score instead of recycling a pop jukebox, it's stretching it a bit to call the soupy, pastiche songs of Les Reed and Roger Cook original.
It's odd that a musical largely set in the 'Jazz Age' of the 20s that its leading characters didn't just epitomize but also christened as such should boast a score that sounds like it's come from the muzak age. Reed and Cook are variously responsible for such easy-listening standards as “It's Not Unusual”, “There's a Kind of Hush”, “Delilah” and “I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing”, so they might be able to tease out the occasional insinuating melody, but none of their work here is sufficient to anchor, let alone drive, a plot-led drama.
But the show becomes even more unstuck in it's overloaded telling. As it hitches a ride on the troubled relationship of the great American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald (Michael Praed) and his wife Zelda (Helen Anker), Kit Hesketh Harvey's book attempts to compress a complex tale into two-and-a-half hours of stage traffic. But there's so much to tell that it's like rush hour up there, and the result is by turns sentimental, arch, earnest and even tasteless.
Musicals can usefully use songs to telescope emotion, but no sooner have Scott and Zelda met than they're in love, all in the space of a single song, before Harvey's book propels them towards conflict (her reluctant parents), resolution (his rising career and their marriage), and on to yet more conflict (their respective affairs, his drinking, her thwarted artistic ambitions etc).
It's enough to drive a person crazy, and indeed, Zelda did end her days in a mental asylum. Oddly, Harvey's book has the show begin where it ends with Zelda in that asylum, which is either expecting the audience to know their story coming in - in which case, why tell it? - or else to confuse them entirely if they don't.
But then Craig Revel Horwood's production, too, is prone to big gestures - and bigger production numbers - than sense and sensitivity. With choreography that is more frenetic than fabulous, it seeks to make a splash (literally so in an Act One finale that contains a gushing water fountain), but when a character claims: "The trouble with the depression is that it's so depressing,", it also nails the trouble with this musical.
- Mark Shenton