As the lead character Tony, Chesney Hawkes delivers a charismatic performance, but essentially, it does feel like he is playing himself. His voice carries the Manilow songs well, and he is at his best when doing solo numbers on the piano.
But How Do You Solve A Problem like Maria’s Siobhan Dillon as Mandy (geddit?) doesn’t possess either the same charisma or the ability to convey any personality. She spends most of the performance looking stiff and unnatural, leaving only her face or voice to convey any character. As such, Mandy is not quite the enigmatic figure that you know from the iconic song. In complete contrast, another BBC talent show evacuee Francesca Jackson, (a wannabe Nancy) breathes life into a minor role, proving herself vocally and conveying real warmth, making Lucy far more likeable.
The two other main roles, Edward Handoll as Scott and Howard Samuels as Jeff, are both excellent. Samuels’ Jeff resembles Bradley Walsh in both character and comic timing - nowhere more so than during “Copacabana”, a lively Latin routine. Handoll stands out as a versatile actor/musician giving a superb performance as the obligatory best friend/ band member.
The plot though is minimalist, giving the actors a difficult task. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, he leaves girl, loses his memory, meets girl again and falls in love like it’s the first time! But in the not-so-great tradition of these back catalogue musicals, the narrative acts as a device in which to insert the applicable lyric. Although this is made easier by the fact that five of the characters are in a band, several songs still seem only tenuously connected to the plot.
Directors Keith Strachan and Bill Kenwright do their best to make a cohesive show with what plot there is, and surprisingly manage it most of the time. John Maher’s musical direction is mostly excellent, although I am left wondering whether it is a musical direction fault or simply a sound imbalance which means that the band are regularly louder than the performers at the climax of a song. This is a real shame since diction is otherwise strong.
Overall, Can\'t Smile Without You makes for a mildy diverting evening out, and it’s not necessary to be either a Manilow or Hawkes fan to enjoy it. But with the great man himself about to tour the UK, you’re reminded that this show sadly misses the opportunity to capture the camp pizzazz that his tunes evoke.
- Helen Jones