Review Round-up: How Desperate Is Stage Susan?
Date: 16 November 2007
Desperately Seeking Susan, the new musical based on the 1985 film of the same name featuring the greatest hits of Blondie, opened at the West End’s Novello Theatre last night (15 November 2007, previews from 16 October), with a cast led by Emma Williams as Susan and Kelly Price as Roberta, the roles created on screen by Madonna and Rosanna Arquette (See Also Today’s 1st Night Photos).
Set in 1979, Desperately Seeking Susan centres on bored New Jersey housewife Roberta Glass who spots a personal ad entitled “Desperately Seeking Susan” and heads off to Manhattan in search of the exciting Susan herself. Things get complicated when, after buying Susan’s jacket, Roberta is knocked unconscious. Awaking with amnesia, she assumes she is Susan, who is also being desperately sought by the mob.
Amongst the Blondie hits included in the stage version are “Hanging on the Telephone”, “The Tide Is High”, “Heart of Glass”, “Call Me”, “Rapture” and “One Way or Another”. In addition to Williams and Price, the musical cast features the Leanne Best (Leslie), Mark McGee (Jay), Alec Newman (Dez) and Jonathan Wrather (Gary). The production is directed by Angus Jackson and designed by Tim Hatley, with lighting by Hugh Vanstone and choreography by Andy Blankenbuchler. It’s currently booking until 19 April 2008.
Another jukebox musical in the West End was probably never going to fare well critically at a time when journalists have been lamenting the takeover of traditional playhouses by musicals. The fact that in this case a back catalogue has been grafted onto a “plodding” adaptation of a film had overnight critics giving it two formulaic demerits. And, while the majority found the principal cast “competent” enough, they felt the production suffered from “uninspired” direction, “odd” design, “banal” choreography and overamplication that turns those Blondie hits into “a deafening irritant”. Most couldn’t resist weaving puns on the show’s title into their final judgements.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) - “The only way to enjoy the show is to submit to the songs, which makes for a totally passive experience … Heavy on base, pulsating with sexiness and full of good harmonic progressions, these songs bring back an era even if they don’t make a musical … Kelly Price and Emma Williams belt out their songs with balls and dedication, but it is impossible to differentiate between them, really, apart from in their hairstyles. Perhaps that’s the point. Roberta’s Jacuzzi-selling husband is fleshed out, just about, by Jonathan Wrather, and Alec Newman is Dez the boy chasing the surrogate Susan through her adventures as a prostitute, prisoner and magician’s assistant. There are some feisty dance numbers choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, but nothing to get too over-excited about, and Tim Hatley has designed sets and costumes that suggest the market aimed at by the show is not one for musical theatre but the retro-punk concert-going crowd. It’s the very sense of calculation in this that gives the game away: the show’s got no soul.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) – “While the show fuels fantasies of escape, it would be much wittier if it followed the identity-swap to its logical conclusion: I'd love to see Susan settling down in the suburbs and proving that inside every punkette lurked a domestic goddess. The real interest lies in seeing how well the Blondie songs dovetail into the story. Some work deftly such as the use of ‘Dreaming’ to express Roberta's secret yearnings, and ‘One Way or Another’ to depict the mafia villain's frenzied pursuit of the life-swapping heroine. But unlike Mamma Mia! where the book was invented to cue the Abba songs, here you sense the strain of constantly fitting the numbers into a pre-existing plot. Instead of rising organically from the story, the songs feel grafted onto it. What the show finally lacks is heart. Angus Jackson's production literally keeps the action moving with the aid of a travelator. Tim Hatley's swiftly-sliding sets neatly evoke the shifting locales … The show feels like a business product calculatedly tailored to appeal to Blondie fans. What it never acquires is the ecstasy that is the musical's justification.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Watching this lamentable musical, in which the immaculate pop songs of Blondie have been pressed into the service of a plodding dramatisation of a so-so caper movie from the 1980s, I began to imagine what further horrors might lurk over the horizon … Unfortunately, wonderful though Blondie's hits are, they have absolutely nothing to do with the movie's plot in which a respectable but bored New Jersey housewife finds herself mistaken for a streetwise punk urchin on the run from a Mafia hitman … Andy Blankenbuehler, the choreographer, hasn't come up with a single exciting dance number, while the director, Angus Jackson, has no idea what to do with the ensemble in what is essentially a chamber piece. The songs meanwhile, including such classics as ‘Atomic’, ‘Call Me’ and ‘Heart of Glass’, are performed at maximum volume with a brutal, bludgeoning efficiency that is entirely devoid of either soul or affection … I fear that Desperately Seeking Susan will leave most discerning theatregoers desperately seeking the nearest exit.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “I do not know whether Blondie's songs were even reasonably suited to the action. The seven-strong band ran to such a volume of sound that they drowned out the singers with cruel efficiency. The chorus never seemed much more than redundant … Still, the musical breaks free of familiar, romantic territory … Angus Jackson's ingenious production, which steers a slick, speedy passage through all the hokum, makes this musical version of the film less a romantic comedy and more of a film noir send-up, shading into Hugh Vanstone's stylised bursts of purple lighting. (Against) Tim Hatley's atmospheric design … Jackson stages the chases with a stylised brilliance on a circular revolve and on the gallery walkway where the harder you run the less progress you make … When Roberta abandons marriage to risk all with Dez, she finally achieves an exhilarating, feminist victory - love over materialism.”
Simon Edge in the Daily Express (two stars) – “It’s a cut above the normal boy-meets-girl pap of this genre and the principals are competent. Kelly Price is an enthusiastic Roberta and Alec Newman is likeable as her lover Dez, even if Emma Williams struggles to get near the effortless danger that Madonna brought to Susan on film. Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is also enjoyably moody, but Angus Jackson’s production is undermined by some odd design decisions. Most of the decor has been relocated to the mid-Seventies, while Susan’s outfit remains resolutely 1985. And some of the supporting acting is pretty lacklustre, depending on the goodwill of a laugh-at-anything audience. But the biggest problem is the music, a deafening irritant that gets in the way of the action and actively undercuts the tale of contrasting worlds, inasmuch as the Blondie tempo remains constant whatever the mood or scene. The programme boasts that the lyrics have not been altered because they are such a perfect fit. I’ll have to take that on trust: I could barely decipher an over-amplified word.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent – “Here, a delightful film has been adapted with clunky literalism (by Peter Michael Marino) and the resulting mess has been pumped with phoney energy by the uninspired direction (from Angus Jackson) and by the well-executed but terminally banal choreography (by Andy Blankenbuehler). Easing with finesse into Madonna's ripped tights, Emma Williams is in strong voice but fails to tantalise as a SoHo vamp. She and Kelly Price as the housewife from Squaresville who assumes Susan's identity are swamped by the idiocies of the adaptation. Take the glorious bit in the movie where Madonna dries her armpits using an upturned hand dryer in the toilets. Williams is allowed to raise her arm for all of three seconds in the vague direction of an unmodified machine. The moment does not work either as an allusion to the film or in its own right … Frantically seeking profit, this is a show that may have to be renamed ‘Desperately Avoiding Closure’.”
- by Tom Atkins
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