(So I usually don’t blog about shows at the Gatehouse as I’m on friendly terms with the owners. But, this isn’t an in-house production so...)
Thom Southerland is seen as one of the up and coming wunderkinds of musical theatre direction. Focusing primarily on classic musicals, he and producing partner Nick Robinson have set about bringing back the golden age classics, including the upcoming premiere of Rogers & Hammerstein’s State Fair and, at the Irving Berlin estate’s request, this production of Call Me Madam.
One of Berlin’s less-often performed works, Madam takes an oil baroness turned ambassador (a fierce Beverly Klein) and her progressive attaché (Mark Henry-Evans) and drops them into the Lichtenstein-like Dutchy of Lichtenburg. Their goal? I’m not exactly sure - when she leaves she’s told not to give them any money, which sets up her pulling out the chequebook when she finds herself attracted to local politician Cosmo Constantine but he stands firm and doesn’t take the money - at which point...her job IS to get them to take the loan and be indebted to the US through the machinations of her liason? This all made sense (I hope) in the original version, but the book was reworked here for length and cast size which has left something of a Dutchy-sized gap in the book’s logic.
Based on this viewing alone, Southerland’s reputation strikes me as...slightly misplaced. Despite his fascination with remarkably American shows (recent work including The Unsinkable Molly Brown and a version of RENT which friends told me to avoid as it was guaranteed to inspire rantage), he doesn’t always get his continuity right: cast members had no idea how to handle the flag, money was miscoloured, accents were broad, and word was that a current London newspaper was used during previews rather than anything looking period. And given that Southerland also reworked the book for this production (a necessity of a shrunken cast), did he have to leave in the constant “I’m a Republican” references? Nobody laughed at them.
In terms of getting actors in the right place and hitting their emotions? It’s fine, and Southerland made a decent go of working to the thrust's demands but there’s nothing revolutionary about the staging.
Enough moaning, though, because it was still a good time out thanks to Drew McOnie’s lively choreography along with Klein’s vivid performance (though the whole cast are lovely and free from any of the show's blame) and, of course, Berlin’s enchanting songs. Alex Weatherhill does his best to negotiate a five piece band, reduced from the original 36, and thanks to the small space and focus on the brass lines, the music maintains a jazzy feel and doesn’t sound empty in the venue.
A final weakness, however, is the lighting, which came down to a no-show from the designer and an enterprising student doing the whole thing on the get-in day in his place - forgivable but annoying nonetheless.
See it if you’re local or have a soft spot for the classics.
Where: Upstairs at the Gatehouse
When: Until 16 August. Tu-Sa @ 19:30, Su @ 16:00
How Much: £12 (All Days but Sat), £15 (Saturday), UNRESERVED SEATING
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £10. I really should say £12 since there are no discounts, but it's value compared to top ticket price...time to pull out the bus passes and student IDs?
RZ Other Notes: Maybe State Fair will be better? It was entering rehearsals while Madam was in previews.