The George and Ira Gershwin song "Slap That Bass", one of the many classics rebundled by Ken Ludwig in his award-winning Nineties musical Crazy For You, includes the lyrics: “The world is in a mess/ With politics and taxes/ And people grinding axes/ There’s no happiness.”
There never seemed a truer verse as Timothy Sheader’s revival opened at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in the second week of August, with the next stage of the world economic meltdown suddenly overshadowed by riots breaking out all over London.
To cap it all the rain started the moment the actors set foot on the stage. But this beautifully crafted, enchanting piece of escapist frivolity still does what it did in recession-bound London in 1993, and what the Gershwins’ original musical Girl Crazy did way back in 1930 – it lifts the spirits and takes you away from all that for a while.
Sheader’s summer musical revival, using his crack team of choreographer Stephen Mear, designer Peter McKintosh and musical director Gareth Valentine, is becoming as reliable a summer treat as the weather isn’t – and even the rain couldn’t dampen the opening-night bonhomie. When the stage-hands mopping the stage during an unscheduled interval get an enthusiastic round of applause, something has clearly hit the spot.
Sheader's previous summer offerings, notably Gigi and Into The Woods, have used the natural sylvan setting in a way this production cannot. This year, the tree-lined backdrop to McKintosh’s versatile raw-wood sets does not add to the sense that we are really on Broadway or in the Wild West desert. But who cares when it’s this much fun?
And if there isn’t a stand-out performance in this gossamer-light tale of Bobby Child, the banking heir whose only dream is to tap-dance and who ends up shipping a troupe of Broadway dancers to Nevada to save a clapped-out theatre from repossession, that’s because Sheader has assembled a fine ensemble cast: Sean Palmer as the beaming Bobby; one-time EastEnderKim Medcalf as his imperious fiancée Irene; Amy Adams-lookalike Clare Foster as Polly, the yee-haw desert girl he falls for; Harriet Thorpe as Bobby’s gorgon mother; and the ever-charismatic David Burt as the cock-of-the-walk impresario Bela Zangler.
They’re backed by a sumptuously clad chorus of leggy blonde Follies – holding a tea-tray over their heads and managing to clang it with a high-kick is an impressive feat – and a something-for-everyone array of numbskull cowboys.
Ludwig’s script is littered with bitchy backchat and groan-worthy gags (“I did not come here to be insulted” – “Oh, where do you usually go?”) but it’s the exuberance of the big numbers – "I Can’t Be Bothered Now", "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and the never-let-it-stop "I Got Rhythm", complete with pot-and-pan percussion – that puts that crucial spring in your step as you make your way back to the real world.