In Hello Dolly Jerry Herman can lay claim to having created one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time. It ran for over 2800 performance and won a staggering 10 Tony Awards. Two decades later he enjoyed another huge hit in La Cage aux Folles, which has won a major Tony in each of its Broadway runs.
In the decade between these two huge hits Herman wrote three less successful musicals (which include the cult classic Mack and Mabel) of which one was ‘The Grand Tour’. It has never having previously been performed in Europe and there was, despite the Finborough’s mighty reputation, a question mark in my mind over the reason why this might be so.
Well it certainly isn’t a dud. If this is not the strongest musical to hit the London stage then one only need cast a jaded eye over the offerings from ‘Theatreland’ to see that it is a long, long way from being the weakest.
However for all the spirited energy of the cast and another piece of spritely direction from Thom Southerland – who currently appears to be operating a cartel in the relatively niche field of small-scale musical direction – there are enough problems with Michael Stewart’s and Mark Bramble’s Book to suggest the work is destined to remain a curio piece for the dedicated rather than be reassessed as a missed masterpiece.
The main problem is that, despite being based on a pre-existing play, the production feels more akin to fragmentary scenes forced into a thematic connection by the overarching story of Jacobowsky and the Colonel. As a result, after a strong opening, we have ‘a scene on a train’, ‘a scene at the circus’ and then, most jarringly, ‘a scene at Jewish wedding’. All of these are performed extremely well and are very enjoyable to watch, but it is hard to be convinced as to why it is all occurring.
The relationship between the three leads is rather too closely reminiscent to the dynamics between Rick, Ilsa and Laszlo in Casablanca. However the creators are too fond of Jacoboswky to allow for the depiction of humanity’s shades of grey that makes Casablanca such a masterpiece. In the end Jacoboswky is both the humane, philosophical Jewish refugee and the hero who will lay down his life for his friends.
In opposition to this Colonel Stjerbinsky really is a clunking idiot – at least Victor Laszlo got the wonderful moment of being able to singLa Marseillaise to remind the audience why Ilsa would have fallen for him in the first place. Without a similar moment we are left to wonder why on earth Marianne prefers him to our hero, Jacobokwsky, and how Stjerbinsky got even half as far as he did without someone selling him out to the Nazis.
Yet despite all of this, it still works remarkably well. There are a number of songs that show us that Herman was still in the middle of his three decade purple patch. I’ll be here tomorrow would stand
up well in any musical, and underneath the lightness of touch is a reminder of the quiet pain and necessary stoicism of anyone born into a Jewish family pretty much anywhere in central Europe in the first half of the 20th century.