Palace Theatre, Manchester
Save the Last Dance for Me is the theatrical equivalent of comfort food. It is not aimed at theatregoers seeking innovation and novelty but rather those tired after a long day and in need of some unchallenging entertainment to relax.
This approach certainly works on opening night with the audience clapping along as the overture is played. But then it is easy to get involved with the music as the songs are drawn from the back catalogue of legendary song writing partnership of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and there isn't a dull number to be found.
Just as well that the songs are good as the script by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, while inoffensive, is achingly familiar offering few surprises. In the early 1960s sisters Marie (Elizabeth Carter) and Jennifer (Verity Jones) are lucky to escape their parents even if it is only on a seaside caravan holiday. A nearby US army base offers surprising dance band entertainment and Marie falls for Curtis (Kieran McGinn) a black soldier who, influenced by the atmosphere of his hometown, is reluctant to commit a to a mixed race romance.
Director Bill Kenwright takes his cue from the script with an unambitious production that tries to do little more than trigger nostalgia amongst the audience. Possibly influenced by the military setting choreographer Bill Deamer adopts a regimented approach. There are no solo spots and the cast dance in formation in lines across the stage.
The script may be lazy but the cast are full of enthusiasm. They play all of the songs live on stage offering fine and occasionally cheeky versions of the classics. The riff from "Shakin' All Over" sneaks into "Little Sister" and "Sweets for My Sweet" is performed as a choral number without instruments. Only Cajun style seems beyond the musicians with "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" performed as a straightforward rock number.
The first half of the show features the dances while the second, less restrained, half allows the cast to belt out the songs. Vocally the cast are very impressive. Elizabeth Carter has the audience in the palm of her hand milking "Teenager in Love" for all it is worth but seems happier cutting loose with a marvellous version of "Please Mr Postman".
The songs contrast Shuman's lively melodies with Pomus's slightly jaded lyrics. The heartfelt interpretation of Kieran McGinn catches this contradiction and brings a much-needed degree of gravity to the show.
Save the Last Dance for Me is satisfying if undemanding entertainment raised above average by the enthusiastic performances of the cast.
- Dave Cunningham