Here's an idea for a plot. The Marquis De Sade flees the Bastille and after many adventures in post-revolutionary France, he finally escapes to the United States to meet his one true love. It could be called Beat Me in St Louis. Far fetched? Preposterous? Maybe so, but as most musicals that reach the London stage these days have a French theme and seem to be based on some concept of unobtainable love, it's entirely likely that such a storyline is being hatched at this very moment.
On the face of it, Napoleon has many things going for it. This is the story of a man who rose from ordinary beginnings (although not quite as humble as legend has it), who within 20 years had conquered most of Europe and whose influence on military training, law-making, education and the belief in the Single Market still has resonance today.
Unfortunately, the authors have chosen to focus on his relationship with his first wife, the notorious Josephine. With a wealth of political intrigue to draw on, it beggars belief that so much of the action is concentrated on the romance between these two participants; both of whom (in real life) sought pastures new soon after marriage.
This new musical is much better in the politicking. After all, these were tumultuous times and famed opera producer, Francesca Zampello draws maximum nuance from Bonaparte's situation. She is superbly aided by designer Michael Yeargan, who makes maximum use of the relatively small Shaftesbury stage. He utilises every design trick to bring Napoleon's epic adventure to life, including giant mirrors, back projections and a two-level stage.
However, as the old saying goes, no one goes home whistling the scenery. When you go to a musical, what you wans are memorable songs: I found it hard to recall one tune just ten minutes after leaving the theatre. Although Andrew Sabiston's music is at least vaguely competent, Timothy Williams' lyrics are a veritable mish-mash of triteness, cliches and dodgy rhymes.
It's a pity because there's an impressive cast. Uwe Kroeger (who shares the part of Napoleon with Paul Baker) has a strong voice and makes for a charismatic general (although his acting does appear to consist of one expression - a sort of pop-eyed stare) and Anastasia Barzee is an effective Josephine. Best of all, David Burt is a devious Talleyrand (oh, and why did no actor make an effort to pronounce his name properly?) who steals the acting honours.
There have been some terrible musicals in London in the past couple of years. This is not another one - but it is rather dull. There was much in Napoleon's life that would make a good subject for a musical, all it probably needs are a decent lyricist and composer.