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Saturday, 6 October 2012

Call Me Madam - Union Theatre - Friday 5 October ****

 

With a book by Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse, who later collaborated on The Sound of Music, and songs by Irving Berlin, this 1949 tale of brash American socialite Sally Adams taking up the post of US Ambassador to the tiny impoverished European state of Lichtenburg, whose only exports are babies and cheese, is given a Michael “Midas” Strassen makeover at the glorious Union.

An elegant minimal set of three downlit columns of voile sets the tone as the entire understated production allows Lucy Williamson full rein to let rip as Sally. With the dials set to never less than ten, Williamson leads the finely honed cast in two hours of classic musical comedy as Sally falls for Lichtenburg’s Foreign Secretary, Cosmo Constantine, and her assistant Kenneth is similarly smitten with crown Princess Maria.

Loud, slightly vulgar and with the over-confidence that only true ignorance can bring (she assumes Lichtenburg’s populace are Dutch as it is a Duchy) Sally nevertheless wins over the majority of her hosts with glamorous parties and the promise of a $100 million loan that they may or may not need (sounds familiar?). The course of her new career and that of true love takes some awkward turns but all is well by the end of act two.

With the most gorgeous costumes I have ever seen on the fringe, much credit to designer Chris De Wilde, fabulous ensemble dance routines thanks to choreographer Mark Smith and mass harmonies to die for, take a bow Carmen Vass who plays numerous small roles and whose voice soars, Strassen serves up a joyous and stylish production.


I take it budget constraints limit the musical accompaniment to Ross Leadbetter’s sterling work at the piano and if I’m honest I do hanker for at least bass and drums to complement him, but that is nitpicking. Actually while I’ve got the nit comb out, Sally’s tap number with one of the ensemble Liam Wrate, whilst fantastic, has me hankering for a whole chorus in tap shoes, but that is just the fantasy of a middle aged dreamer.

Banishing all thoughts of Ethel Merman, for whom this was originally written, Lucy Williamson is a force to be reckoned with, constantly in the moment, ready with an arched eyebrow and disarming quip, she belts out her numerous numbers like her life depends upon it. The devilishly handsome full bearded Gavin Kerr as Constantine doesn’t get to sing much but commands the stage with a strong masculine presence (not as easy as it sounds in musical theatre). Leo Miles with his tender tenor and Natalie Lipin, who must get bored with the Lea Michelle comparisons, make Kenneth and Maria a lovely, if a little wet, young couple and the remainder of the 16 strong company are sure footed and note perfect. However, the evening belongs well and truly to the incredible Lucy Williamson.


A great way to start the weekend and lift the spirits on a drizzly Friday night in south London and the lighting by Jon Winn is second to none, I reckon Jon will be making a showing in my New Year's Honours list come January.

Booking until 27 October 2012, a joyous and stylish musical comedy classic - Call Me Madam

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