Charles Strause was a successful composer of musical comedies in the sixties and seventies - including Bye Bye Birdie, Applause and Annie (there were many others that never arrived this side of the Atlantic). His early collaborator and lyricist was the very witty Lee Adams, who was responsible for those magical rhymes “mask of tragedy/you’ll be glad you decided to smile)” and “pleasant outlook/full of doubt look”. Strause later had a fairly disastrous collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner and a rather more successful one with Martin Charmin (for Annie).
For Put On A Happy Face, Barry Fantoni has brought together some of the lesser-known songs and wrapped around them a rather perfunctory version of the life of Strause based on his recently published autobiography. Some of the songs are a joy. In particular the very amusing “Da Da Da Da Da Dah“, played at the piano and sung by Michael Chance (who plays Strause); the moving “Night Song” which is a great opportunity for the delightful Sherene Hanley in the persona of Butterfly McQueen, and “We Speak the Same Language” sung by Alexander Bradford as Sammy Davies with his back to the audience - a miracle of projection!
The actors play several parts in addition to their main roles and they all sing well with several good close harmony items sung around the piano.
Paul Lawrence Thomas plays the young Strause with a great deal of youthful energy and shares in the piano playing duties with Chance, the hardworking principal of the show. Leanne Howell portrays his wife, plus a variety of sexy blondes, while Victoria Kempton doubles as his mother and Louise Boulanger his Parisian mentor. Michael Scurfield is Dad and Peter Gerald, a talented comedy actor, gets a lot of fun out of playing Lee Adams.
However, despite the good work of the cast, I get the feeling that this production was put on in a bit of a hurry and never got quite finished. I was very disappointed that more was not made of the title song, which is a really great number, rather than so much concentration on the unknown ones. Enjoyable, but hardly the Landor’s finest two hours.