If They Might Be Giants were gay Jewish musical theatre composers, they would undoubtedly be William Finn. A master of writing upbeat tunes about remarkably downbeat subjects, Finn’s work (netting him a Tony for Falsettos and multiple nominations otherwise) has been compiled and brought to the UK in the form of Make Me A Song, a revue which ran briefly in New York last year.
To put it bluntly, Make Me A Song is a bizarre choice for a British theatre company's lineup. Finn’s work is undoubtedly American and revolves heavily around the New York Jewish-American experience. While the wider pieces such as the excerpts from Spelling Bee and A New Brain hit, it takes a certain level of insider knowledge to appreciate the nuance of songs like “Passover” and “Four Jews in a Room Bitching”, though the RZ’s fellow audience members certainly caught the gist as well as the more personal songs.
Despite the cultural barrier, the material shines over the evening, with the first act devoted to Finn’s career in general and the second presenting a miniature version of Falsettos before giving each performer a farewell piece, wisely ending right when the audience begins to check their watches.
Of course, a solid cast can sell anything, and on most levels this cast delivers. Gareth Snook is the evening’s ringleader, taking the majority of narrative moments and in some cases the role of Finn himself. Simon Thomas has a touch of bad boy to him, but a pure clean voice which betrays the looks. Locals will, of course, instantly recognise Ian H Watkins from his pop career, but the RZ came in ignorant of the performer’s past. In the words of his companion for the evening, “I wanted to hate him but he’s actually really good.” Indeed, Watkins has a boyish charm and innocence which only adds irony to songs like “My Dad’s A Homo”, and he is in fine voice.
On the female side, Louise Dearman is a blonde bombshell who hits the crazy high notes with seeming ease without losing the humour and tenderness of the moment. Sally Ann Triplett is woefully underused as a last minute addition to the cast, but shines in her limited appearances. Unfortunately, Frances Ruffelle has seen better days since her days in Starlight Express and Les Miz. While she can still make her notes and sings without issues, her acting is not what it used to be as shown by her spazz-tastic rendition of “My Friend the Dictionary”. Indeed, Ms. Ruffelle comes off like Natascia Diaz (who the RZ adores) at her worst.
Musical theatre fans will adore this show, and those unfamiliar with William Finn will find this a handy primer, though non-musical fans will be bored. In general, Make Me A Song is a highly pleasant evening, and maybe if it converts enough people to Finn, we can finally get a transfer of Spelling Bee.
Where: New Players Theatre
When: T-Su @ 19:30, Sa/Su @ 15:00
How Much: £15-35
Concessions: None listed.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £25. This is solid off-Broadway material worthy of off-Broadway prices. However, the RZ is one to carry a grudge....
RZ Other Notes: ...and indeed, the box office staff and ushers at the New Players may be the rudest theatre workers in the West End. While the RZ was not present, his companion mentioned overhearing an usher berate a patron for asking the runtime at the interval before complaining about heavily comped audiences. Given that anybody who knows how to get free tickets to a show (including the RZ and his companion, both comped) is likely to be the sort who spreads word of mouth, the usher in question (along with the box office staff who’ve cancelled the RZ’s bookings before without notice) could use retraining in customer service. The RZ will say that the usher he talked to before the show (a polite, blonde young woman) was helpful as were the bar staff, even when all he wanted was some water, but the service level at the New Players is generally quite poor. Maybe it’s because a full time general manager at the NPT only gets £20,000/year according to the posted advert whereas a box office worker at the Royal Albert Hall gets £18,000. Some motivation to be customer friendly, eh?
Too bad for them - both the RZ and his companion would love to see this again (and pay for the privilege), but the RZ would rather spend his money where it’s more clearly wanted.
Oh, and the runtime which caused so much fuss? While the RZ was told two hours even before the show, it started on the late side and ran closer to 2:10. The song order is being tweaked and already didn’t match the programme, so 2:10 is what it’s likely to stay.