Based on Alexandre Dumas’s novel La Dame Aux Camélias, the plot of new musical Marguerite is familiar for the other stories that have used the same source – most recently Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge. But here, the distinguished creative team led by Oscar-winning composer Michel Legrand has set the tale of a high-class courtesan and her penniless lover against the backdrop of occupied Paris during World War Two.
The musical opens with the titular Marguerite (Ruthie Henshall) celebrating her 40th birthday with her society friends in the opulent Parisian home of Otto, the high ranking Nazi officer who keeps her. Once a lauded singer, glamorous Marguerite now relies on her other charms to buy herself the lifestyle she requires, even if it leaves her loveless and makes her a collaborator. When Armand, a young pianist in a jazz band, plays at her party, Marguerite gets a taste of true love, and the pair begins a love affair that puts them and everyone around them in danger.
Highly romantic and inevitably tragic, this is a classic musical with a melodious score that combines 1940s-style jazz numbers with sad ballads and passionate laments to love. It also provides star parts for its two leads: petite Henshall plays Marguerite as a delicate, beautiful woman who has been roughened by the life she has led, now bowled over by a love she thought she would never experience; Julian Ovenden channels the naïve passion of Armand into both his rich singing voice and his impressive piano playing. A sub plot allows strong support from Annalene Beechey as Armand’s sister Annette, who works for the resistance, and Simon Thomas as Lucien, Annette’s Jewish boyfriend, who flees Paris as anti-Semitic Nazi policy increases.
Paul Brown’s designs turn the Haymarket stage into Otto’s icily palatial drawing room, complete with chandeliers and grand piano. The use of stage revolve and projections later conjure the park where Armand and Marguerite begin their affair, Armand’s artisan apartment and the winding streets of Montmartre. Mark Henderson’s lighting adds to the cinematic feel of the piece, as figures are silhouetted against the eerily lit back wall.
The musical comes to a close on one particular, tragic silhouette. With Paris liberated and the Germans banished, Armand and Marguerite’s love is nevertheless impeded by the consequences of her former life. Like the classic romantic weepy that this musical is, true love remains heartbreakingly out of reach.