Mini-review – Norma Jean the Musical – Ye Olde Rose and Crown pub theater, Walthamstow

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I’ve had some pretty good experiences at the Rose and Crown, so my hopes were, well, not high, but level when I headed for the long trek north to see this new show, Norma Jean the Musical. I went in the company of a hard core Marilyn Monroe fan, which I thought would be a counter balance either to my enthusiasm or my distaste.

Norma Jean the Musical is based on much about Marilyn Monroe’s life, but told through the lens of her time in an asylum (hint: you are “committed,” not “sectioned,” in America) in 1961. We meet a variety of characters from her past – her mother (Maggie Robson), two of her foster mothers (Ida – Rosy Fordham; and Grace McKee – Amanda Swift), a sort of random male relative from her past (an uncle, I think – Chris Edgerly, also cross cast as a doctor). Thrown into the mix is a representation of Marilyn in her more successful moments (Melissa Suffield) and even a very young Marilyn (Robert Mair), who both argue with broken Marilyn (Rebecca Cole, “Norma Jean”). While we, the audience, are taken through her past to try to understand how she has wound up where she is today, Norma Jean and Marilyn both argue with these different people about what sort of effect they have had on her. A lot of this is done in song, which was occasionally fun but at times just confusing. Fortunately, the music stuck to easy rhyme schemes and uncomplicated sentiments, so I followed along well (occasionally wondering if any of the tunes would get a second showing in “Blink and You Missed It”).

Obviously being raised by so many different people and in such a religious environment (at times) would have had some kind of influence, but the shrill voice of Edgerley’s character going on about her abandonment issues – well, I wasn’t buying into it. In fact, I just couldn’t buy into any of it. While the history was mostly accurate, the conclusions they drew seemed grossly exaggerated, and the constant references to Monroe being the biggest screen star of her age – well, she just wasn’t. She was a bit player with just a few roles and you could easily pick five female stars (Elizabeth Taylor? Doris Day?) who far outshone her. So it seems to me like the show was written from an overly worshipful perspective, and due to that wasn’t able to get into any great degree of psychological complexity. And the conceit (of Norma Jean and Marilyn both being there) just wasn’t compelling. A few of the bit parts – call out to the warm Rosy Fordham and the snappy Randy Smartnick – were very enjoyable, but overall, this was a painful show that I found hard to sit through. As it turns out, my Marilyn fan didn’t like it at all either, and we both blamed bad writing (and songs). The cast probably could have done a lot more, but this seems overall a fan driven effort that needed more writing talent and a more critical eye. As they sang, “What Are We Going to Do for an Encore,” I leaned over and whisper, “I don’t think they’re going to have to worry about it, really”

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