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Top Hat

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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There are only five Irving Berlin songs in the 1935 art deco movie Top Hat, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, so in expanding the show without altering the story line, and adding ten more Berlin numbers, director Matthew White runs the risk of back catalogue cheesiness.

He mostly, and cleverly, avoids this by good placement – the show’s new curtain-raiser sees Tom Chambers’ likeable Jerry Travers leading a storming tap routine in “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in his Broadway farewell – and by allowing Summer Strallen’s gorgeous Dale Tremont a more hot-and-cold musical repertoire than Ginger’s.

Basically, Jerry loves Ginger who thinks he’s someone else, his producer. After Jerry scores a hit in London – the title song is the Act One finale – the confusion is sorted out while dancing “Cheek to Cheek” in Venice, where there’s a lot of Spanish dancing going on.

It’s pointless trying to replicate the sheer style and effortless gaiety of the original, even if you could. Instead, a perfectly enjoyable tourist class version evokes the movie instead of breathing the magic.

Chambers, who looks disconcertingly like the concave-faced comic Hugh Dennis, is a little prosaic and earth-bound – but, then, who floats like Astaire? – and we’re more overwhelmed by Strallen’s extraordinary high kicks and Ginger-like back bends than we are by any marked sexual chemistry between the couple; it’s less top hat and white tie than flat cap and muffler.

As in Singin' in the Rain, the show’s microphoning is far too harsh and steel-edged, but the band under musical director Dan Jackson is terrific, Bill Deamer’s choreography witty and disciplined, and there’s a pleasing art deco line to both Hildegard Bechtler’s grey designs and Jon Morrell’s colourful costumes.

Tom Chambers (Jerry Travers) & the male ensemble
There are strong second act “turns” from Vivien Parry as the producer’s wife and Ricardo Afonso as a deluded Latin lover, Beddini, reduced to his long johns and suspenders in a flailing frenzy (he’s looking for a noodle in a haystack). And Stephen Boswell chips in slyly as the producer’s (Martin Ball) Jeevesian valet.

“Cheek to Cheek” and “Isn’t This A Lovely Day?” are the movie’s best songs, but no-one’s going to complain about the importation of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet, even if the staging of it is something of a desecration. A high old time is had by all, even if, with Beddini, we can also say, “I don’t like your altitude.”


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