Regular readers of this blog (hello Mum, hello auntie Hazel) will know that I have an ongoing love affair with the Landor that verges on the pornographic, so it was with a spring in my step that I skipped to Clapham on a balmy Friday evening. I actually took the Northern line from Angel but what’s a little poetic licence between chums?
Unusually for the Landor, this production of Kander and Ebb’s first ever Broadway show is a transfer that originated at the Rose and Crown in Walthamstow.
Set in New York during the Great Depression, a feisty fashion illustrator, Flora, has established a co-operative of fellow creative types in a disused hotel ballroom. She gets offered a job she can’t refuse designing for a department store but has to compromise her left-leaning ideals. Falling in love with artist Harry, a card carrying communist, Flora finds herself in competition for Harry’s affections with communist activist Charlotte and at loggerheads with her union denying boss.
Katy Baker positively sparkles in the title role of Flora, for which Liza Minnelli won her first Tony, so no pressure there then, although I doubt many of us upstairs in a south London boozer witnessed Liza on Broadway 47 years ago. Last week I raved about Louis Maskell’s central performance in The Fix at the Union. Here Katy Baker is every bit his equal, a leading lady in waiting to his leading man. Astoundingly this is her first musical theatre role since leaving drama school three years ago, to which the only sane reaction is – why? With echoes of the great Caroline O’Connor, she banishes any thoughts of Liza and makes Flora all her own, a warm, strong, yet vulnerable portrayal coupled with a belter of a voice. Her 11 o’clock number, Sing Happy, bought down the house and a tear to my eye. Baker is a gifted eminently likeable performer who I cannot wait to see in many more musicals in the years to come.
If Baker is the undoubted star of the night, she is given strong support from the remainder of the 9 strong cast, in particular Ellen Verenieks as Charlotte. Nominally a baddie, I nevertheless found myself rooting for her idealistic would-be maneater. With feline grace and comedic flair she manages to turn the villain of the piece into a most unlikely anti-heroine.
A sub-plot involving two co-workers Kenny and Maggie and their dreams of becoming professional dancers is totally enchanting with nimble footwork from the cutest couple this side of Wills and Kate, Greg Sheffield and Kimberley Moses.
As a document of the start of an exceptionally fruitful writing partnership that produced two genuine masterpieces of musical theatre, Flora is an intriguing prospect. In its’ treatment of capitalism, the working class and the effects of mass unemployment, it manages to be totally relevant and I can only begin to imagine how well a production in Athens or Madrid would go down at the moment.
The first act does drag at points and could probably lose 10 minutes without any discernible damage to the plot. The downbeat ending leaving the audience to fill in the gaps with a cowed but unbroken Flora presumably pulling herself up by her bootstraps is also a little unsatisfying. To be brutally honest, I would also have loved a drummer to accompany the undoubtedly hardworking duo of piano and bass. However, whenever Katy Baker is on stage, which is fortunately most of the evening, these concerns disappear and this production soars.
While it never manages to scale the peaks of Cabaret and Chicago, both also grounded in the early part of the 20th century, Flora The Red Menace has a lively jazz influenced score and hints of the greatness that was to quickly follow. Coupled with some smart, sassy performances this makes for another wonderful night out at the Landor.
Finally, I was going to congratulate the designer and choreographer for such beautiful 1930's costumes and clever fluid dance routines and was astounded to find both roles are tackled by Kate McPhee. High fives to Ms McPhee, you have done a grand job. The Busby Berkeley-esque end of act one ensemble number, Dear Love, featuring cherubs with wire coat hanger bows, has to be seen to be believed.
Booking until 14 July 2012, smart, sassy and relevant with a star-making turn from Katy Baker - Flora The Red Menace