On seeing the set for Lady Be Good it is apparent that this will be a show of unashamedly larger-than-life 1920s glamour. The Open Air stage houses a giant grand piano, tilted and suspended over the orchestra. An equally over-sized white double bass leans to one side, an emblem for the absurdly, delightfully, over-the-top nature of this production, revived and tweaked from director Ian Talbot’s 1986 version. Caroline Bishop was in the opening night audience…
The piano’s keys serve as steps, upon which the cast somewhat precariously make their way down to the stage to the opening bars of Fascinating Rhythm, the show’s most recognisable number and the one that, in this production, becomes a running thread throughout this infectiously toe-tapping musical.
George and Ira Gershwin’s 1924 comedy musical, written originally for Fred and Adele Astaire, tells of brother and sister Dick and Susie Trevor, who have been evicted from their Rhode Island mansion and find themselves without a penny. Dick, though rather in love with girlie Shirley, decides to propose to their rich and snooty neighbour Josephine Vanderwater to get him and Susie out of their spot of bother. Susie, outraged, agrees to a hairbrained scheme by crafty, cuddly lawyer Watty Watkins – himself put upon by a gun-toting Mexican – to earn herself some money and save her brother from such drastic measures. Farcical shenanigans swiftly ensue.
Talbot hams up the characters and the comedy delightfully in this tongue-in-cheek production. This is a world where charades and hunt-the-slipper are the games of choice at any classy party, a world where a pretty girl is known as a ‘peach’ and people exclaim in unison at key dramatic moments. There is a disdainful butler, an upper-class twit and his bubbly girlfriend, a blond, all-American hero and a dashing, mysterious love interest. Kate Nelson and Chris Ellis-Stanton are likeable as our pair of siblings, Hattie Ladbury goes all out to send up the snooty Jo, but it is Paul Grunert, as the endearing Watty Watkins, who makes the most of some of the best lines in the show as he plots to save his skin from the nasty Mexican and make off with some cash in the process.
The show is packed with dance numbers, both ensemble pieces and duets which were no doubt intended to display the fancy footwork of the Astaires. Choreographer Bill Deamer has risen to the challenge of creating choreography which shows off the skills of the cast and sends up the era at the same time. Nelson and Ellis-Stanton must be aware whose infamous footsteps they are following in during I’d Rather Charleston, while Just Another Rhumba is a ridiculously frivolous number which suits the increasingly-farcical nature of the story.
This is Talbot’s final season as Artistic Director at the Open Air and his parting gift is a pretty piece of parody which fills Regent’s Park with fascinating rhythms, glitzy costumes and smiles so wide they will shine through the rain.
Lady Be Good runs until 25 August.