Review – Coco – Lost Musicals at Sadler’s Wells

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Apologies for the delay in publishing this review: at some time after the show my program for Coco disappeared. This meant I couldn’t credit any of the cast, as Sadler’s Well’s website and the Lost Musicals websites say absolutely nothing about the brilliant cast of this (and all) shows. Dammit all, I will have to remember that when I write here, it’s not just for me, it’s for posterity, as there needs to be a record of who was working on it somewhere! But … HURRAY I found it, so nearly a week later my review is ready at last.

A musical never performed in London, written by the great Alan J Lerner, with music by Andre Previn? This kind of solid gold pedigree is exactly what I’ve come to expect from Lost Musicals, and their choice of the neglected Coco was a good one, a treat for it to finally be performed in Europe and a delight for those of us who like our songs singable and our characters unforgettable. While the concept of Coco Chanel as the center of a musical seems highly promising on its own (ooh, the clothes! ooh, the glamor!), I was fascinated that this play was actually about a woman who was old and powerful – and not the spiteful head of a family, but a businesswoman. It’s a character type I haven’t really seen a show about before.Then you put yourself in the mind of it being Katherine Hepburn, and, wow, it all just really worked, despite having a lead role that’s not really one for a singer – it was written for a woman with a forceful stage presence. And Sara Kestelman did a good job of being vibrant, passionate, bitchy, thoughtful, everything Coco needed to be – it was hard to take your eyes off of her.

I’m not one much for summarizing plots for shows in my reviews, but I’ll make an exception here due to the obscurity of the show. It’s the early 50s. Dior’s new look, all pinched waists and complex undergarments, is in. Chanel is, however you cut it, out – but she wants back in, against the advice of her lawyer Louis (Edward Petherbridge, who did a great job of being both supportive and long suffering) and assistant Pignolle (a fine comic turn by Myra Sands),- and, well, everyone else ( in the number “The World Belongs to the Young”). She throws open her salon to some models and finds a sort of “junior Coco” in Noelle (Robine Lundi), an orphan who’s been slumming in Paris as a live-in girlfriend for Georges (David Habbin). Noelle gets the modelling job, Georges says she must quit “or else;” Coco lectures Noelle about the joy of making your own money and being independent (in the song “The money rings out like freedom” … “Clink clink a-jingle! …. Oh debt where is thy sting?” and with such aphorisms as “One needs independence and not equality. Equality is a step down.”), convincing Noelle to keep the job and be her own woman. Over the course of the play, we see flashbacks to how Coco got her life to the point it is now … where she’s basically a contented woman despite being single … and watch as an interfering “assistant” Simon (Simon Butteriss, a total show stealer with his schadenfreude-driven second act song “Fiasco”) attempts to mutilate her style by adding bits and bobs and dealie-boppers to the clothes (I believe this was meant to be the designer Lanvin). She cuts Simon out, presents her collection as she wants it, then faces financial ruin as Paris decides she’s just not very fashionable. But then she’s saved by a deal with a bunch of American department stores (in the witty number “Orbachs Bloomingdale Best and Saks”) to sell her clothes in a sort of cut down, mass-market way – rather comically living up to what she says at the beginning that it’s the age when the thing to do is to follow the masses, not lead them. Noelle and Georges also get back together – he with a new-found respect for her – and the play ends on a happy note for all.

I’ve seen at least three new musicals in the last six months and the wit of this show blew them all out of the water. Previn’s songs were often short (I’m guessing due to being written for a weak voiced lead) but they were still full of hooks with great Lerner lyrics – in fact it’s a week later and I’m sitting here singing “Fiasco” to myself. And the dialogue itself had me and my friend David giggling and guffawing in a way I had not experienced in ages. “Today they think ‘chic’ is someone riding on a camel” … “Mademoiselle will never go back to work! She is too old … I mean too rich and too wise” … “Forgive me for not writing, I had nothing to do and couldn’t get around to it.” What a treat! To top it off, the show was introduced by Liz Roberts, the widow of Alan J Lerner and a piece of living history. It was just such a rich experience … oh man! What a wonderful Sunday afternoon. Anyway, once again “Lost Musicals” has delivered a wonderful entertainment: I can’t wait until Mexican Hayride!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, June 5th, 2011. The final performance will take place on Sunday, June 12th, 2011. These shows consistently sell out so I advise booking early.)

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