There’s been a recent trend among producers searching for hit theatrical material to plunder the movie back catalogues in the hope of finding a property that has instant recognisable appeal to audiences.
And while there’s a huge debate to be had about the stifling of new creativity and the failure to develop emerging talent, you can kind of see the point: shows such as Legally Blonde, Dirty Dancing and Footloose already have a head start when it comes to making their money back.
So after the stage success of the Irving Berlin film musical White Christmas, it was only natural that another Berlin movie colossus should be on the target list. Step forward Top Hat, a new stage version of the 1935 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicle that was the RKO studio’s biggest earner of the 1930s, and launched with a world premiere in the traditionally glitzy, glamorous, star-studded environs of… Milton Keynes.
It’s a canny move (staging Top Hat, that is, not giving the world premiere in Milton Keynes) and director Matthew White has co-scripted an adaptation with Howard Jacques that actually works as a lush, lavish piece of musical theatre.
Elaborate and beautiful set designs by Hildegard Bechtler and some stunning costumes from Jon Morrell set the tone perfectly, while a vast chorus of hard-working talent puts Bill Deamer’s excellent choreographic skills to superb use.
Headliners Summer Strallen and Tom Chambers are oddly mismatched – she elegant and naturally accomplished, he slightly gawky and having clearly put an enormous amount of work into every footstep, echoing his Strictly routines – but then anyone would struggle in the shadow of Astaire and Rogers, and the pair make a decent enough leading couple in this silly, frothy tale of mistaken identity and resulting slapstick.
There’s humorous support aplenty from Martin Ball and Vivien Parry as socialite couple Horace and Madge Hardwick, and Stephen Boswell as their valet Bates and Ricardo Afonso as a comedy Italian provide laughs with broad brush strokes.
But the real winner is the fabulous Berlin score, including standards such as Isn’t This a Lovely Day, Top Hat and Cheek to Cheek, performed by a top-notch 14-strong orchestra under the commanding baton of Dan Jackson. The sound quality is immaculate, the playing first rate and the music itself simply sublime.
If the show is to have a West End life beyond the national tour that begins here, it will be in no small part down to the ravishing sounds emanating from the pit.