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Naked Boys Singing

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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This flimsy New York cabaret piece – apparently a huge hit across America – originally did just what it says on the poster. In Phil Wilmott’s production, it has been rejigged so that the cast only fully disrobe towards the end of the 65-minute show. Most of the time, it’s more a case of Clothed Boys Singing About Being Naked.

Willmott’s version – grandly entitled Naked Boys Singing! 2009 – takes the form of 16 numbers sung by a troupe ostensibly auditioning for the event we’re seeing, in a knowing homage to the putting-on-a-show musical A Chorus Line. There are solo audition songs (“From now until my ship comes in, I really wouldn’t trade/ The satisfaction that always comes/ with being your naked maid”); ensemble numbers as the hopefuls slug it out for a place in the line-up; and even a wistful hymn by the show’s pianist, Leigh Thompson, in which he rejects the buffed perfection of the modern male body in favour of the craggier looks of Robert Mitchum.

At first it all seems witty enough. The circumcision song “The Bliss of a Bris”, to a Fiddler on the Roof-style refrain, is full of smart, fast-paced rhyming, and another number contains the laugh-out-loud Sondheim parody line “side by side (and front to rear)”. But there’s a complacency about some of the lyrics (I’m sorry, but “Mitchum” just doesn’t rhyme with “smidgin”), and there is nothing smart about the number “I Beat My Meat”, which is pure adolescent crudity. The writers – astonishingly, 13 of them are credited – really need to pay another visit to Avenue Q if they want to learn how to do this sort of thing properly.

By the time lithe young cast of Steven Butler, Joe van Haeften, Duncan Leighton, David Lucas, Adam Mendlesohn, Matthew Russell-Jones and Nathan Taylor finally get down to full-frontals, the smut has completely smothered the smart. If you aren’t disposed to weep with laughter at a cast shouting “dick”, “prick”, “willy” and “weenie”, you may find yourself alienated from the general air of hen-party hilarity.

You have to remind yourself that this material emerged from a country where the spirit of the Pilgrim Fathers is alive and well – there are lots of references to defying Bible Belt values – and where they have not had years of exposure to Graham Norton. What may seem daring and exciting to Americans seems tired and coarse over here.

It’s also a logical mess. In the song “Fight the Urge”, the company manager is terrified that the naked auditioners will see he is aroused. In another number, they have all turned gay – so why would they care? Inconsistency like that may not matter on a cabaret stage, but if you put it in a proper theatre – even one beset by embarrassing technical glitches on opening night – then I’m afraid it does matter.

- Simon Edge

NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from June 2009 and this production’s original run at the King’s Head Theatre.

So what’s it about then? Umm… Put it this way: the title isn’t exactly cryptic. It’s not wholly accurate either – at least not until the home straight, when the much-heralded dévoilement finally occurs. Up until then Naked Boys Singing, a plot-free, gay-centric paean to the male physique, is more tell than show.

But hell, what’s so special about male nudity anyway? You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, and a 65-minute revue on the subject needs to offer a lot more than a sad little strip show for closeted voyeurs. It needs to be snappy, witty, catchy and entertaining. Happily, those are the very qualities that suffuse this good-natured, riotously funny evening of song, dance and, er, swing.

The 17-song score is credited to no fewer than 13 different American writers, which must be something of a record, so it’s not surprising that the quality of the material is variable. Alongside some forgettable sub-Stephen Schwartz numbers are one or two real gems, most notably a torch song to Robert Mitchum (sardonically delivered by musical director Leigh Thompson) and the irresistible showstopper 'Nothin’ but the Radio On'.

The seven-strong ensemble comprises six talented triple-threat guys who act with conviction, sing superbly and dance up a storm both individually and as a nicely matched ensemble. They are certainly more consistent than their material, and it’s a shame that the excellent Stephen Butler, David Lucas and Adam Mendlesohn are all lumbered with solos that don’t quite cut it (literally so in the case of Mendlesohn, whose dull song of circumcision could easily be snipped from the script). Joe van Haeften, Nathan Taylor and Duncan Leighton are equally adept at treading the fine line between solemnity and send-up, and there is a bright comic turn from Matthew Russell-Jones who is (or do I mean provides) the seventh member of the cast.

Phil ‘King of the Fringe’ Willmott does it again with some tight, fast-paced direction, although the show is really stolen by Andrew Wright’s terrific choreography. The gentlemen dance like crazy, in or out of clothes, and it’s always a hoot. If you’ve a mind to pop into the King’s Head you’ll enjoy a jolly spot of (semi-)innocent fun… but if it’s gratuitous nudity you’re after, be patient. The hour-and-a-bit flies by, and it ain’t over till the naked boys sing.

- Mark Valencia


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