The Union, nestling
in its SE1 railway arch, is an institution to be cherished by London’s musical
theatre fans. Do they, however, make the odd mistake? Pick the wrong show? Drop
the ball? I fear, in the case of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the answer is
You don’t have to be a raging feminist to question whether, today, watching a blonde and brunette chase husbands is in any way rewarding. The stakes and emotional depth here are ridiculously low. When the story is not about weddings, it’s about ownership of a diamond tiara. It is laughably weak material for 2019 audiences.
The set is minimalist which gives us few clues as we take our seats. Musical alarm bells ring during the overture as the percussion and piano combo feels thin and under-powered. Before we know it though, the stage is full of committed cast members singing an exposition heavy opener about sailing away from somewhere or other. There is a bit of waving. It is fairly unimaginative stuff from director Sasha Regan. Worse, within fifteen minutes we have experienced dodgy accents, strained harmonies and a gratingly squeaky heroine calling her fiancé ‘daddy’. The plot is nonsensical. In the first half characters are tasked merely with wandering on, doing some comic business and leaving. Firstly on a cruise liner, then in Paris. If you’re going to rely on a simple pole to represent a cruise liner’s deck rail, incidentally, you do need the cast to hold it straight. I guess it is appropriate, though, as you could also apply the term limp to the songs in act one. There’s a low lyrical moment in It’sDelightful Down in Chile, utterly unrelated to the plot by the way, when Chile is repeatedly rhymed with, I kid you not, Chile. There’s another song about the benefits of roughage in your diet. Broadway has had way, way better days.
In an admission, perhaps, that the mood needs lifting after a challenging first act, the cast chirpily invade the bar during the interval. I can’t believe I was alone in feeling slightly embarrassed for everyone as we were firmly encouraged back to our seats.
The second half is pretty much the same as the first but benefits initially from a nightclub act framing device. There’s a brief dance number from Ashlee Young as Gloria Stark. Her performance, the choreography from Zak Nemorin and the male ensemble’s contribution make for an enjoyable interlude. The song we’ve all been waiting for follows. Sadly, Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend feels lazily lifted from the movie version we already know. Eleanor Larkin as Dorothy Shaw comes closest to having a showstopper. Her big jazzy number Keeping Cool With Coolidge is one of the few moments that feels fully formed. It is delivered with more confidence and pizzazz than any other moment in the show.
The finale must count as one of the most bizarre show endings in all musical theatre. There is ill-advised sexiness involving an elderly wheelchair bound father-in-law before we pause for a heartfelt ode to a brand of button makers. The wedding we have been waiting a long, long time for seems an afterthought. It feels unfair to expect the Union to bring us hit after hit, but it still pains me to say this production misses the mark.
Based on a book by: Anita Loos and Joseph Fields
Adapted by: Anita Loos
Music by: Jule Styne
Lyrics by: Leo Robin
Directed and produced by: Sasha Regan
Booking link: http://www.uniontheatre.biz/gentlemen-prefer-blondes.html
Booking until: 26 October 2019