In something of a coup for this lovely little theatre beneath Charing Cross station, goddess of stage and screen Betty Buckley (Cats, Carrie, Sunset Boulevard) stars alongside West End, TV & chart veteran Paul Nicholas (Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Just Good Friends, Dancing with the Captain) in the European premiere of legendary Broadway composer Jerry Herman’s almost mythical 1969 musical based on Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot. With direction by trailblazing West End choreographer Gillian Lynne (Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Aspects of Love), that’s a goddess, a veteran, a legend, a myth, a trailblazer and plenty of cats, a tremendous pedigree in anyone’s book.
Jerry Herman (Hello Dolly, Mame, Mack & Mabel), second only to Stephen Sondheim in my perpetually bloodshot eyes, was diagnosed HIV positive in 1985, soon after his enormous success with La Cage Aux Folles. He gave up writing show tunes for a life of travel and a lucrative second career as a property developer. Happy to say he is still going strong today at the age of 81. I’ve spent the last 15 years refurbishing flats, so may well try to knock up a musical when the builders eventually finish the current money pit.
In what must surely be Charing Cross’s most ambitious production yet, Matt Kinley’s set of beautifully fluid art nouveau screens reveals a Parisian cafe owned by the eccentric Countess Aurelia, Buckley. Three unscrupulous businessmen and a greedy prospector have discovered oil beneath the cafe and intend to destroy it and as much of Paris as they need in their quest for wealth. All that stands in their way is Aurelia and her rag-taggle band of friends and employees, notably Aurelia’s two totally barmy mates world-weary Constance and eternal virgin Gabrielle, Annabel Leventon and Rebecca Lock dangerously close to upstaging the glorious Ms Buckley, and the star wattage of Paul Nicholas’s subterranean eco-warrior sewer-man.
It all sounds simple enough, but in actuality what follows is an almost surrealist exploration of love, ageing, friendship and the evils of unbridled capitalism all accompanied by a newly updated score including several songs excised from the original production. And what a score it is. There are barnstorming numbers, heart-rending love songs and heart breaking ballads, just wait until you see and hear Buckley sing “And I Was Beautiful” downstage with tears streaming down her face. The first act closer “One Person” is a call to arms that comes complete with a Les Miserables style walk down and Gabrielle’s second act love song to her imaginary dog “Dickie” is so ridiculously enjoyable it should come with a health warning.
The band, hidden in the flies and uncredited so I don’t know how many of them there are (oops my mistake, 8 piece band listed in programme, see comments below), sound simply magnificent under the musical direction of Ian Townsend. The gorgeous costumes by Tony award winning Ann Hould-Ward perfectly reflect the personality of each character. Gillian Lynne’s sensitive direction and deceptively simple choreography ensure the pace never lets up and reach their apotheosis with a totally joyous finale.
The evening however, belongs to Betty Buckley. In a triumphant return to the West End, she makes Aurelia more than a bonkers caricature. She often underplays and imbues Aurelia with a subtle strength, warmth, heart and a melancholia arising from a long lost love that she manages to transform into compassion for her fellow man. Add to that a voice that has lost none of its incredible power in the intervening 20 years since she was last on the Strand in Sunset Boulevard and you have a rare treat indeed.
I went expecting it to be good but nowhere in my wildest dreams did I imagine it could be this good.
Booking until 30 March 2013, a true star in an absolute gem of a show where everyone has raised their game to meet her at the top - Dear World