“If I ever go looking for my heart s desire again I won t look any further than my own back yard, because if it isn t there I never really lost it to begin with,” says Dorothy at the end of the Wizard of Oz, a film paid homage to in Maddie, the new musical from authors Shaun McKenna, Steven Dexter and Stephen Keeling s. Dorothy s journey down the Yellow Brick Road brings her to the same realisation that Jan (Summer Rognlie) and Nick Cheyney (Graham Bickley) come to after seven years of less-than-exciting marriage.
When the Cheyneys move into a San Francisco apartment owned by old hoofer Al (Kevin Colson), they re in for a surprise. The apartment, once occupied by Al s lover, the ambitious, good time girl Maddie who died in a car accident in 1926 on route to a screen test with Cecil B. de Mille, is now haunted by her. Enter one frustrated spirit determined to discover if she ever really had that star quality.
Jan and Nick are nice but dull. The extent of Jan s dullness - not evident in Rognlie s grinning, please-like-me performance - becomes apparent once she s possessed by Maddie who buys clothes befitting a stripper, gets rip-roaring drunk, croons atop a piano and makes love on a park bench. Small wonder that Nick, desperate to escape his own dullness, falls in love with Maddie.
The play aspires to old fashioned musical but only manages to be contrived and predictable. All the requisite formulaic songs are there - the love ballad; the remember when song; the comedy number; the heartfelt, what should I do? tune and that great, end of first act stalwart, the travelling song. There s only one nod to the Boubil/Schonberg influence on the contemporary musical in the strong ‘I ve Always Known .
A major plot crisis towards the end of the second act - where Maddie, rejected by Jan, enters the body of Mrs Van Arc in a performance from Lynda Baron about as subtle as Rognlie s voice - causes the plot to disintegrate before our eyes. It doesn t take much, it was hanging by a thread anyway.
Much has been made of Maddie as a home grown musical - a British creative team, workshopping the piece first under Stephen Sondheim s professorship at Oxford then at the National Theatre. But, in a time when we re seeing an emergence of a new vitality in both British film and theatre, it s both frustrating and insulting to witness talent, energy and money expended on a story taken from a 25-year-old American novel and to see talented performers struggling with unconvincing American accents.
If you want to discover happiness in your own back yard, American-style, stay at home with a video of The Wizard of Oz.
Penny Faith, October 1997