There is a challenge inherent in reviewing a musical theatre review. As a form, they are clearly produced for established musical theatre fans. One is forced to question how much a reviewer’s opinion really matters in such circumstances. Basically, you will either love their brand of showbiz razzle-dazzle or you won’t. There is probably very little middle ground here, folks. It is best to pick a side.
If you are still reading, then the good news is you are likely to find Showtune a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Last seen in a major London production twenty-one years ago, it is, on the face of it, a simple affair. Plotless and without dialogue, it’s a greatest hits song cycle that merrily rolls along. How much of Jerry Herman’s work you’re familiar with will of course depend on your musical theatre tastes, but the undeniable fact is that the 2009 Tony Lifetime Achievement Award winner has been responsible for incredible work since the 1950s. Obscure songs sit comfortably alongside more recognisable fare. The song tally reaches an impressive forty without, it seems, a single miss-step. True, this means a helter-skelter pace but the fact nobody pauses for breath is one of the show’s great strengths.
It’s not exactly a scatter-gun approach though. There are themes weaved throughout the action, helped by consistently strong emotional performances in amongst all the singing. Lost love and heartbreak feature quite heavily. The optimism of youth and a passion for the silver screen, thanks to songs from Herman’s Hollywood biopic Mack & Mable, are very much to the fore as well.
The slightly musty under-the-arches brick and ironwork of the Union Theatre create an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere for this relatively small-scale production. It gives proceedings a slightly seedy off-Broadway mood. The design has all the trappings you would expect – make up mirrors and feather boas – but with an accessible contemporary home-grown edge. Full marks for costume design that includes Adidas track suits and M&S dressing gowns amongst the sequins and bow ties. The young cast of ten charm us and, importantly, welcome us into their behind-the-scenes world. We feel at home and in safe hands as soon as we hear the first few notes from musical director Henry Brennan’s on-stage piano.
There are numerous highlights. I Won’t Send Roses from Mack & Mabel is a genuine tear-jerker thanks to Aidan Cutler and Alex Burns hitting all the right notes. In fact, Alex Burns’ performance throughout is a particular joy. Showtune, however, is the very definition of an ensemble show. Everyone has a moment to shine. Every corner of the performance space is used cleverly too. Director and choreographer Luke Byrne clearly has a keen eye for staging. At times perhaps the choreographic ambition overreaches just a little. The stage feels small and cramped during full cast numbers, as well as highlighting the mix of dance abilities. But these slightly wobbly moments matter little; overcome as they are by enthusiasm and twinkling broad smiles. The cast really are troopers to the last. As the finale sees them exit straight to the Union’s bar, it feels like we ought to follow having made new friends over the footlights.
As billed, Showtune is a genuine celebration of the words and music of Jerry Herman. Thanks to a winning cast and confident staging, it ticks the required musical theatre boxes without, mercifully, resorting to irony or cynicism. If you are a musical theatre fan, you really ought to treat yourself to a ticket and perhaps enjoy a spring in your step, if not a little soft shoe shuffle, on your way home.
Directed by: Luke Byrne
Musical Director: Henry Brennan
Produced by: Sasha Regan
Booking link: http://www.uniontheatre.biz/showtune.html
Booking until: 24 August 2019