You might think, on the face of it, that there’s not a great deal of meaty material to be had from the Neil Sedaka story. The writer and producers of Laughter in the Rain appear to have come to the same conclusion.
In fact, the redoubtable singer-songwriter has had his fair share of trials – from growing up with an extended family in two rooms in Brooklyn, via his mother’s extra-marital affair, to his run-in with the US government over a decade of unpaid tax – so it seems doubly odd that this Sedaka-lite narrative chooses to treat them all as a mild irritation on one man’s journey to the stars.
The fact that Sedaka himself is described as a “consultant” to this show probably explains a lot, together with the programme note that the writer, Philip Norman, is a “close friend”. Whatever the reason, it leaves a fundamental emotional hole where the drama should be.
Having said all that, and taking the lack of storytelling content into account, there’s a huge amount to enjoy in this romp through the back catalogue, and the audience at Milton Keynes was certainly prepared to go with every sequin-studded scene.
At its heart is an utterly compelling and winning performance by Wayne Smith as Sedaka himself, at turns charming and driven, and displaying the most lyrical tenor voice I’ve heard on a stage for a long time. Smith is a fine actor, too, and carries the whole show by sheer force of his talent and warmth.
There’s a multitude of support from a large cast, doubling up in a host of different roles along the way. Edward Handoll stands out as Sedaka’s songwriting partner Howie Grenfield and Kieran Brown puts in nice spots as Tony Christie and Elton John.
But the real winner is the six-piece on-stage band, led by Pierce Tee, which is never less than spot-on with its lush arrangements and fizzing energy, and provides much of the momentum when the show finally does catch light deep into the second act.
Primarily aimed at Sedaka fans – of whom there have always been plenty in the UK – this production, directed by Bill Kenwright and Keith Strachan, is glitzy, gorgeous and good fun. And if it’s not going to win any prizes for storytelling, maybe it makes up for it with its musical pedigree. At least, Milton Keynes didn’t seem too bothered…
- Michael Davies