Review – Top Hat (the musical, not the movie) – Milton Keynes (transferred to the Aldwych – was Birmingham Hippodrome, Southampton Mayflower, Plymouth Theatre Royal, Leeds Grand etc.)

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UPDATE: Top Hat has now transferred to the Aldwych Theater, but according to The West End Whingers, my review seems pretty sound still – though you may prefer to read theirs. (The following review is from August, 2011.)

There’s been only one musical on my mind this summer – Top Hat, a brand new staging of a musical that’s previously only existed on the silver screen. For me, it was the chance to see my idol Summer Strallen in a part that actually took advantage of her triple-threat talents that I’d last seen put to their full use in Drowsy Chaperone. A dancing role previously held down by Ginger Rogers? Sign me up! Summer seemed like the perfect person for the role. Even better, there was a whole plate full of Irving Berlin songs fleshing out the original five. Sadly, though there wasn’t a London date in sight, so I was stuck going to Milton Keynes to get my fix – but, hey, nothing like seeing a show early in its run to put you ahead of the blogging pack, right? Plus, truth be told, I just couldn’t wait. Woo hoo tap dancing on the big stage SIGN ME UP!

Now, as it turns out Milton Keynes was actually way more of a hike than I’d expected – a full hour out of London (and I live an hour south of Euston so my trip back was a real marathon) and expensive as it’s on one of those weaselly train lines that charges peak fares in the evenings as well as the mornings. But, well, the running time was short enough (just about 2:30) that I could be ensured of getting back before last train, so all is well.

I’m not familiar with the story of Top Hat, as I must have seen it well over twenty years ago, so I was pretty empty of expectations. The show starts with a lively musical number that introduces us to our lead, Jerry Travers (Tom Chambers), an American dance man whose been invited to come perform in London – the London of 1930s American musicals, which is all Cockneys and Art Deco and men in top hats, with bizarre rules about politeness and an obsession with scandal (very plus ca change in my eyes). There he winds up at a posh hotel where he just starts randomly dancing away in his room in my very favorite scene from the entire play, perfectly Fred Astaire as he danced with a hat rack, and perfectly zany as the maid and service staff joined in. It was beautifully choreographed and a real joy.

In the story arc, this dance is what provokes the meeting between Jerry and Dale Tremont (Summer Strallen) – he’s tap dancing on her ceiling, and when she comes up to complain, Jerry is instantly smitten. This leads to the rest of the silliness as former permanent bachelor Jerry chases Dale around London (most wonderfully in Hyde Park, with the number “Isn’t This A Lovely Day” and the comedy in a hansom cab) and eventually in Venice, with Dale fighting her attraction to Jerry due to a mistaken identity (she thinks he’s Horace Hardwick, the man who rented the original hotel room). Of course they wind up together in the end, and there are several more wonderful dances along the way, including the amazing one with around 16 male tap dancers, who are joined by a bunch of tuxedoed women. Wow!

Sadly, the thing that kept me from really buying this show was the lack of electricity between Jerry and Dale, which kept me from really being able to get into the rest of the show – crazy that what I came for was the dancing, but then it was the acting that frustrated me! As near as I can tell, this was probably due to a very short rehearsal time – it seemed like the background dancers had probably been working on it for ages, but the leads only got pulled in about a week before the show started. (And I saw this show AFTER press night, so no grousing about my seeing a preview, please.) I was also displeased with the costuming – while some of the outfits were great, there was a general cheapness to many of them – including the what should have been fabulous feathered dress Dale wears toward the end of act two – that made the dancers look dumpy when they should have been svelte.

Overall, this was a pleasant night, but it wasn’t the blockbuster I was hoping for. In retrospect, I much preferred Crazy for You, which had wittier dialogue and a much less wooden male lead (which I suspect was Chambers’ attempt to channel Astaire). Given a few more months on the road, I am guessing a lot of my complaints will have been taken care of, and there’s no doubt that the Milton Keynes audience ate it up – almost uniformly giving it a standing ovation. This wasn’t the American tourists screwing it up, it was English people expressing their appreciation for a show they really enjoyed. I anticipate a successful tour and I do hope that it makes a London transfer after it’s had several months to bake.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 25th, 2011. Top Hat will be touring the UK through December 10th, 2011.)

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6 Responses to “Review – Top Hat (the musical, not the movie) – Milton Keynes (transferred to the Aldwych – was Birmingham Hippodrome, Southampton Mayflower, Plymouth Theatre Royal, Leeds Grand etc.)”

  1. Ann Rowland Says:

    Have just seen show and LOVED IT. Yes, Tom is trying to replicate Astaire, so is a little wooden, like Astaire, BUT the dancing is FAB. Costumes are fab, orchestra is scintillating, scenery and scene changes brilliant and supporting cast is excellent. Maybe last half an hour is too long. A little subtle editing would make it a definite London HIT! Audience rose from their seats at the finale and everyone left the theatre smiling. Ann Rowland, Kenton, Exeter, Devon. ann@rowlandc.gotadsl.co.uk

  2. Jenny Says:

    I’ll be working backstage at the London production. Its going to be at The Aldwych Theatre from late April 2012 initially for a year! 🙂

  3. John Didlock Says:

    We went to see Top Hat at The Aldwych last Thursday and loved every minute of the show.- I wouldn’t mind seeing it again, something I haven’t done since my student days when I went to see The Boy Friend twice in as many weeks.

  4. Cheryl Hersch Says:

    Just seen the show in London on a preview it was sold out.
    All the previous niggles have been ironed out ,dancing is slick and the supporting actors have a gift for comedy.
    Costumes and scenery are fantastic,Brilliant show!

  5. martin ives Says:

    I thought it was poor, the stage too small ,the orchestra too small, the male lead not up to the part, some fat and ugly female dancers,end of the pier not west end

  6. marina ward Says:

    I just loved the show and coudnt stop singing all the way home. A realy good feel factor. Great costumes but wonderful dancing and singsing

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