Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Musical: Tonight's the Night (4 Stars)

Judging by the leaflet advertising the coming events in Birmingham's New Alexandra Theatre this is a new trend: the so-called jukebox musicals, when the best known hit songs of a performer are strung together to tell a story. After Rod Stewart they'll be showing musicals with music by Meatloaf, the Beatles, Marc Bolan, Elvis Presley, Simon & Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, and many many more.

I can understand this from two sides. Today's concert halls are full of tribute bands playing the old hits, often just as well as the original bands, and when you stand there you're surrounded by middle-aged women dressed as 20-year-olds singing along. They know every song by heart, and they're glad to live in the past, recapturing their youth. The jukebox musicals are also riding the nostalgia wave, although I have to admit that the women in the audience tonight were dressed more conservatively.

On the other hand, I have to see this from the side of the authors of the musicals, in this case Ben Elton. This is a very lazy way to write a musical. No songs need to be composed, so all the author has to do is put the songs in the right order to tell a story. I admit that some creative steps are needed; for instance, "Maggie May" was sung as a duet, and by dividing the lines between the man and woman the meaning was changed. But that doesn't make this musical an "Evita". Ben Elton is no Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The story itself is a variation on Faust. Stuart is a shy boy who works as a car mechanic in Detroit. He is in love with a girl called Mary, but is afraid to tell her so. She also loves him, but she's waiting for him to make the first move. Stuart thinks that if he were a big rock star like Rod Stewart Mary would like him, so he sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for self-confidence and musical talent. He gets the girl straight away, but he wants to go on the road and perform, showing off his talent and making money. And as is usual in the rock'n'roll business, he sleeps with a different girl in every city. Interestingly, the Devil and Stuart's manager are played by the same woman, which seems to be a statement about the music business.

The story has a happy ending, of course, as everyone who has read Goethe's Faust will know. The Devil gives Stuart back his soul, because she thinks he's too boring to have him in Hell with her forever. This happens just before a big concert, when Mary is coming to watch him. Stuart realises that he's his old self again, too shy and untalented to perform. But then his friend tells him that the Devil never gave him the talent, he had it all along, so he goes out on stage and puts on a fantastic show. And they all lived happily ever after.

A simple story, full of clichés, but does it work? The audience seemed to think so. They applauded at the end of every song. It was noticeable that the applause was longest and loudest after Rod's biggest hits. The crowd had come for the songs, not the story. And the cast certainly delivered the songs. Ben Heathcote was an excellent singer as Stuart, but in my opinion it was Jenna Lee-James (Mary) who stole the show with her incredible voice. There were also great performances from Tiffany Graves (the Devil and the manager) and Jade Ewen (Mary's friend Dee). Ironically, Michael McKell, who plays a Ronnie Wood-lookalike called Stoner, has a singing voice that resembles Rod Stewart more than Ben's voice. The dancing was first rate, though not overly athletic. The band, which played anonymously and semi-visibly behind a thin curtain, were adequately skilled in playing the backing music. The audience loved it, and I liked it too, so let's forget the weaknesses in the story and say it's worth watching, especially if you're in your 50's, a Rod Stewart fan, or both.

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