The Grand Tour? Oh you mean ‘Le Grand Tour’, oui?

The Grand Tour – Finborough Theatre, until 21 February (tickets)

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.The Grand Tour 3 Alastair Brookshaw (Jacobowsky) photo Annabel Vere

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 Grand Tour 5 Natasha Karp, Nic Kyle, Vincent Pirillo, Michael Cotton, Samuel J Weir, Laurel Dooling Dougall, Alastair Brookshaw and Lizzie Wofford photo Annabel VereThe 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.

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Gilbert and Sullivan with added jazz hands

The Mikado – Charing Cross Theatre, until 03 January 2015

Gilbert and Sullivan are never going to appeal some people. High-brow opera aficionados will most likely turn their nose up in distaste whilst theatre connoisseurs will wryly shake their head before searching out a disused prison for the latest in immersive theatre. People who don’t go the theatre will probably just be entirely baffled by the whole experience.

For those who like Gilbert and Sullivan the joy is that they manage to keep themselves outside of any particular bracket. They are just who they are, and you feel that their operettas achieve precisely what they wanted them to achieve. Make no mistake: The Mikado is an MikadoChX-Press-SRylander-011 (1) (1)absolutely ludicrous show and so much better for it. Thom Southerland, who has a number of recent notable fringe musical successes under his belt, understands this and pitches the show in a bizarre 1930’s factory that makes absolutely no logical sense to the plot but which allows a free-wheeling lunacy to give the show a hugely infectious, if slightly demented, charm.

Southerland’s choice of location helps remove the focus from Japan, and as a result some of the slightly more knuckle-chewingly inappropriate reference points are adroitly side-stepped. In fact the result of updating the plot is that it actually makes it easier to see how Gilbert and Sullivan could be a precursor to the likes of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, and perhaps they deserve more recognition in the creation of what we understand musicals to be. Anything Goes is one of the great musicals but the plot itself is pure hokum, and really how different is The Mikado? Both are full of memorable songs, some great jokes and end in marriages.

The link to American musicals is aided by some sparkling choreography from two-time Tony Award nominee, Joey McKneely. It is quite clear that McKneely is someone who knows what they are doing. He has drilled the ensemble into some fine, spirited work on a small stage. Indeed some of the energy is so high you worry that they are about to tip off the front and severely disrupt the two folk bashing away on the baby grand pianos that provide the musical accompaniment.

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