It's difficult to resist calling Beautiful and Damned more damned
than beautiful, but then this is a musical that never meets a cliché it
doesn't like and rushes headlong to embrace, so I'm in good company. And as
much as I would like to be able to welcome a new, British-originated musical
on Shaftesbury Avenue that features an original score instead of recycling a
pop jukebox, it's stretching it a bit to call the soupy, pastiche songs of
Les Reed and Roger Cook original.
It's odd that a musical largely set in the 'Jazz Age' of the 20s that its
leading characters didn't just epitomize but also christened as such should
boast a score that sounds like it's come from the muzak age. Reed and Cook
are variously responsible for such easy-listening standards as “It's Not
Unusual”, “There's a Kind of Hush”, “Delilah” and “I'd Like to Teach the
World to Sing”, so they might be able to tease out the occasional
insinuating melody, but none of their work here is sufficient to anchor, let
alone drive, a plot-led drama.
But the show becomes even more unstuck in it's overloaded telling. As it
hitches a ride on the troubled relationship of the great American novelist F
Scott Fitzgerald (Michael Praed) and his wife Zelda (Helen Anker), Kit
Hesketh Harvey's book attempts to compress a complex tale into
two-and-a-half hours of stage traffic. But there's so much to tell that it's
like rush hour up there, and the result is by turns sentimental, arch,
earnest and even tasteless.
Musicals can usefully use songs to telescope emotion, but no sooner have
Scott and Zelda met than they're in love, all in the space of a single song,
before Harvey's book propels them towards conflict (her reluctant parents),
resolution (his rising career and their marriage), and on to yet more
conflict (their respective affairs, his drinking, her thwarted artistic
It's enough to drive a person crazy, and indeed, Zelda did end her days in a
mental asylum. Oddly, Harvey's book has the show begin where it ends with
Zelda in that asylum, which is either expecting the audience to know their
story coming in - in which case, why tell it? - or else to confuse them
entirely if they don't.
But then Craig Revel Horwood's production, too, is prone to big gestures -
and bigger production numbers - than sense and sensitivity. With
choreography that is more frenetic than fabulous, it seeks to make a splash
(literally so in an Act One finale that contains a gushing water fountain),
but when a character claims: "The trouble with the depression is that it's
so depressing,", it also nails the trouble with this musical.