Transferring from the Edinburgh Fringe, where its wit and professionalism probably felt like a breath of fresh air, this in-joky satire on musicals and those who sing in them looks thin in the cold light of London.
Alexander S Bermange’s songs tick off the main markers of the average big West End show – opening number, romantic duet, big dance routine, encore. This musical arc is loosely tied to the rise of a generic performer from audition through understudying to stardom, and the audience’s journey from boredom to ecstasy and sometimes back again.
Despite packing 16 or so clever songs into just 70 minutes – each of them riffing on a different genre or adapting a theme from a familiar long-runner – it still feels scanty and random. There’s also a jarring but regrettably familiar tonal mix of the mocking and the mawkish. We are asked simultaneously to deride and celebrate these histrionic, egomaniac, triple-threat actor-singer-dancers, who suffer endless humiliations for a chance to transport us, “the overpaying audience”, somewhere else.
It remains broadly amusing thanks to the acid notes in Bermange’s score (he also provides the onstage piano accompaniment) and the four-strong cast. Jennifer Caldwell, Sev Keoshgerian, Rhidian Marc and Julie Yammanee are all mid-level troupers in the trenches of musical theatre with strong voices and a willingness to send themselves up. “You’ll love the opening number,” they trill, all teeth and jazz hands as they hoof onto a stage adorned only with a few glittery stars, gilded top hats, and a rack of costumes.
Then we’re straight into the agony of auditions and performer showcases (in which Bermange does some artfully bad piano playing and Marc repeatedly shifts key). There are sideswipes at unruly audiences and superfans. I’m slightly ashamed that I got the gag about the woman who always used 24601 – Valjean’s prisoner number in Les Mis – for every computer passcode.
Caldwell wittily sings the title track, complete with its grammatically correct use of the subjunctive, noting that living life like a musical could potentially mean getting crucified or “sung at by Russell Crowe… but even so.”
Keosherian gets weaker numbers as a performer going on despite illness and as a perpetual understudy while Yamanee has fun as a star turn who can’t sing, syncopate or keep time. There’s a brutal duet between actors who treat the climactic kiss in a romantic number as a battleground – complete with the chemical warfare of halitosis – and a song for a vainglorious, demanding diva (Caldwell, in a Norma Desmond turban).
Bermange’s lyrics are mostly deft and witty and his playing is on the money: it takes real skill deliberately to hit that many duff notes. The dancing is vestigial. I saw the show on its first London preview and it was technically fine. But it all feels a bit incestuous, lazy and obvious.
Musicals are an easy target – Forbidden Broadway took a far more savage scalpel to them years ago – and the “love-me” neediness is as offputting in a spoof as it is in, say, Wicked. Good try though, loves. Next!