Note: This review dates from 15 February 2009, when this production premiered at the Jermyn Street theatre.
It's April 1929 in Flatbush, Brooklyn. A man wanders on to the stage, and, sitting on a bench, takes out the New York Times and begins to read. Gradually the actor musicians enter one by one, playing their instruments, building up what was originally the overture in this, Stephen Sondheim’s first attempt at writing a musical.
The late 20s atmosphere is established as one would expect. There are flappers, speakeasies, and guys who gamble on horses or the turn of a card, but mainly on the stock exchange. Our hero, the handsome Gene Gorman (David Ricardo-Pearce), is a runner on Wall Street, where stocks are constantly rising, and where he builds a habit of giving out insider tips to his friends.
Gorman wants to get rich and acquire “class”. He says “I don’t wanna be what I am, I wanna be what I can” and to this end he dresses up in tails and white tie and, borrowing his cousin’s Pierce Arrow motor car, ventures into the mysteries of Manhattan, where he meets his love interest Helen Vogel (Helena Blackman), a girl with her feet firmly on the ground who eventually helps him to see the error of his ways.
The performances are all distinctive but one of the key players is Lee Drage as Bobby – a guy who goes to extreme lengths to create the impression of being the local Casanova. Also outstanding is Charlie Cameron, a very talented comic actress and dancer who makes a startling impression with her tiny role.
This is an old fashioned musical with hummable tunes that stay in the mind long after the curtain falls. This is unusual for Sondheim, but not surprising as it was written in the tuneful fifties and some of the songs are reminiscent of the great songwriters of the day. What is particularly poignant about this story is that the characters are totally unaware of the impending Wall Street crash, although as a 2009 audience, we're all too aware of the bleak economic times ahead.