Theatre Review: Top Hat

Date Posted: 24/05/2012

Melissa Cadby headed to London’s Aldwych Theatre to get her razzle dazzle on with new musical, Top Hat.

Who should see it? Fans of the 1935 Astaire and Rogers’ film will love this revival, as will those groups who appreciate the sounds made famous by Irving Berlin.

The show summed up in one sentence… a frothy yet twee romantic comedy, with more than a few catchy songs and tap sequences thrown in for good measure.

“I did everything you just did, backwards, and in heels,” quips society model Dale Tremont to sparring partner and love interest, Jerry Travers. This quote, synonymous with dancing duo and role originators, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, succinctly sums up the banter-fuelled relationship and basis for Top Hat’s musical plotline.

Almost 80 years after RKO Radio Pictures’ screwball romantic comedy played out on the silver screen, marking the most successful picture of Astaire and Rogers’ partnership, this new production toured the UK last autumn, before transferring to the West End stage this spring.

Adhering to the rom-com formula since reproduced by many a scriptwriter, the tale journeys from New York to Venice via London, as irrepressible Broadway sensation Jerry Travers meets, and subsequently pursues, pithy socialite Dale Tremont. What follows is a cacophony of tap and ballroom dancing, Irving Berlin classics, colourful costumes, and art deco sets, all wrapped up in a case of mistaken identity.

Directed by Matthew White, Top Hat stars television actor Tom Chambers and stage actress Summer Strallen in the principal roles, both of whom put in credible individual performances, yet together create a less-than-sizzling chemistry despite the witty scripting. Though Chambers’ vocals bore a slightly nasal quality - not altogether in-keeping with Travers’ suave heartthrob persona – his fluid dance moves more than made up for any shortcomings in the crooning department. In fact it’s hard to believe that acting comes first in his professional career, as it’s easy to see why he scooped first place in 2008’s Strictly Come Dancing.

With credits such as The Sound of Music, Love Never Dies, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Cats to her name,Strallen is natural leading lady material, and didn’t disappoint with her interpretation of Tremont. With a real attitude, graceful moves and a respectable range, her seemingly endless pins certainly didn’t hinder those high-kicking routines.

The ensemble cast cohered together easily for group performances, but special mention must go to the four supporting company members. Bumbling West End producer Horace Hardwick (Martin Ball) divides his time between protecting his investment in Travers by discouraging his involvement with Tremont, whilst balancing his love / hate relationship with wife Madge (Vivien Parry). In my eyes, this pairing made a more entertaining and convincing couple than our protagonists, employing comic timing and one-liners to perfection.

Stephen Boswell’s portrayal of butler ‘we are Bates’ went down a storm with the audience, who anticipated humour with every scene in which he appeared. Bates’ dry sarcasm was just the lift the show needed, whilst fashion designer and Tremont’s dresser, Alberto Beddini, also added an extra dimension. Ricardo Afonso’s presentation of the volatile, camp Italian was effortless, and his pronunciation again left the aisles in stitches.

The live 15-piece pit orchestra progressed confidently from hit to hit, as the stands merrily hummed along to the score which comprised Puttin’ on the Ritz, Cheek to Cheek and the catchyI’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket, amongst other razzle dazzle show tunes. The complementary choreography, designed by Bill Dreamer, was imaginative in the up-tempo numbers and elegant in the romantic duets.

Translating beautifully from black-and-white motion picture to colourful stage musical, it is hard to recall Top Hat ever being made without the vibrant costumes and art deco set straight from the glamorous 30s - a striking result of the numerous changes accomplished throughout both acts. Therefore recognition must go to costume designer Jon Morrell for his authentic outfits which obviously provided ease of movement without compromising on detail. The same must be said of set designer Hildegard Bechtler, who incorporated clever props and backdrops, in several scenes creating two separate floors on one stage, without losing the integrity of the era.

I found the first half a little too slow-paced to pique my interest, though ironically all of the air-miles are clocked up before the interval. The second act, on location solely in Venice, benefitted from better quality routines, dialogue, and all-round efforts. Chambers really warmed up to create a much more likable character in Travers, and he and Strallen also seemed to find their comfort zone together.

Top Hat isn’t revolution and won’t be breaking any new ground, but for a musical without pretention, that boasts nostalgic tunes, talented feet, and appropriate humour, this is the one for you.

Top Hat is currently booking at the Aldwych Theatre until the 26th January and group travel organsers would be interested to know that parties of ten plus can secure the best available seats for £39.50 on Monday to Friday performances and Thursday matinees.

Photo credit: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg

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